Here Be Giants: Breaking up CVS, Aetna, and basically the entire economy

In their best Biggie (ft. Jr. M.A.F.I.A) impression, CVS (ft. A.E.T.N.A) is doing their best “Get Money” move. By attempting to buy Aetna for $69 billion…heh….they’re trying to merge one of the largest pharmacy retailers with one of the largest healthcare insurance providers. That the purchase is for $69 billion is all too perfect because the only people getting any sort of pleasure out of this will be the executives at CVS and Aetna; everyone else is left out of this little shindig.

But this is just one more merger among many since the 1980s and 90s, when the US government decided it really didn’t care about oligopolies and de facto monopolies. If you want to look at one of the biggest reasons we’ve seen profits and production increase along with he cost of living, but wages remain stagnant, you could look to the current market structure which is almost exclusively an oligopoly in every single industry. Want to go to a pharmacy? Most likely your choices are CVS, Walgreens, or maybe RiteAid (and let’s not forget Walmart). Sure, there are local pharmacies, but they represent such a small portion of sales that they hardly count. You could also go to your local grocery store, but it’s not really “local” as it’s most likely owned by Aldi, Albertson’s, Ahold Delhaize, or Kroger (or, again, Walmart). And if you want to watch the news on your phone (which is really just down to two competitors: Samsung and Apple), you’ll likely be watching or reading the news from an organization that is owned by one of six corporations (90% of the mass media in the US is owned by just 6 corporations).

The point being, it’s difficult to think of an industry where there’s robust competition free of giant competitors. Business software? Intuit and Microsoft will likely outcompete you or buy you. Oil extraction? There’s maybe 3 or 4 major companies that can accomplish this. Car production? Of major US car producers there’s three, including real worldwide competition we’re still at less than 10. In fact, if you think of common oligopolies in the US, every major industry has one: Internet service providers (which are often monopolies in smaller regions), aluminum and steel production, airlines, mass media, pharmaceuticals, music, and the list goes on. In fast food 71% of the industry is taken up by just 12 companies, though the food industry is harder to create an oligopoly due to already low margins and that different types of food can be offered to avoid competition.

Americans are always careful with monopolies, we try not to let any one company control an entire industry at a national level (though we oddly have no issue when it’s done at the local level). However, we’ve ignored that we’ve moved into an economy where each industry faces little to no competition. While there is some competition, it’s not significant nor is it enough to effectively lower prices. Likewise, when few companies compete within an industry, you not only harm the consumers, you harm the workers. Just as consumers won’t find low prices, workers won’t find higher wages because “the market” has set wages within that industry. But if you’re skilled in media and want more pay, where are you going to go if there are only 5 other options and they pay the same? “The market” has only set that pay because those 6 companies don’t have to compete against each other to gain quality workers, so they can artificially lower the wages. Multiply this across various industries and you begin to see how our obsession with large companies in industries has forced wages to remain low; when 2-10 companies control an entire industry, representing millions of workers, the companies get to dictate the market price of labor because they control the market.

See, the above isn’t a free market. A free market requires the market to, well, be free. That means free of harmful government regulations (note the use of the word “harmful” here) BUT ALSO must also have robust competition. If an industry requires large corporations with little competition in order to function, then it means that industry ought to be heavily regulated by the government because it’s not a market industry; the market can’t self-regulate the company or companies because they are the entirety of the market. If you have 100 businesses within any given industry then the market tends to self-regulate (to an extent). There’s enough competition that people will pay higher wages to attract better workers, which gives them an edge over the competition. The higher wages means the average worker can consume more, so more money is spent within the industry, which boosts other businesses. The cycle continues. If, however, you have 5 businesses within any given industry, then the market is clogged up and doesn’t exist. Here’s an example for those who follow the NBA (and if you don’t follow the NBA, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you):

In the current state of the NBA we see oligopoly in action. While there’s an entire season and 30 NBA teams competing for a title, in reality there’s only 2 teams that could possibly win it. 5 if you press it. Golden State and the Cavaliers round out the top and are realistically the only two teams who could possibly win the championship. Of course, on the wings are Houston, Boston, and maybe the Thunder (if they figure out how to play together). Of course, Boston fans would argue that Boston has the best chance, but that’s what Boston fans do. But outside of those teams, everyone is just playing to play. They don’t have a realistic chance of winning. Now imagine if the NBA came in and rather than putting a salary cap on a team, they put an All Star cap on a team, meaning you’re limited on the number of players you can have who have been named to an All Star team over the past two seasons (I’m not saying the NBA should do this; I’d hate it as a fan of the sport). Suddenly, the NBA would become VERY competitive. There’d be no way to really predict a winner; sure, there’d still be teams that you know wouldn’t win, but the list of who could win would increase to at least 10-15 teams, or half the league.

Take that analogy and compare it to the modern American economy. What if we broke up oligopolies? What if we went into industries, saw that the market was clogged like a bad artery, and cleared it up? What if in any given industry the competition went from 5 to 50? Sure, within 2-3 years it’d dwindle down again due to some companies not being able to make it, but you could see it leveling off at a much higher level than now. What’s happening in the modern age is companies are being bought out while they’re healthy. We didn’t get here because companies were failing; we got here because companies bought out their competition. And as multiple industries have seen companies clog up the market, we’ve seen prices go up for common items and wages remain stagnant because where else are you going to go?

If you look at successful economies in Europe – not just the mythical Nordic nations, but also Germany and…uh…Germany… – one of the common themes is they’re very anti-oligopoly. In industries where large corporations are required, which stifle competition, there are heavy regulations in place and the industry must function within those regulations. Those economies are doing the opposite of what the US is doing and they’re experiencing stability rather than stagnation. In fact, the great economic boom in the US in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s occurred because most US industries were full of competition. While come industries were still oligopolies, enough industries and therefore enough of the jobs out there had enough competition that the oligopolies in other industries still had to keep higher wages in order to compete for better workers, even if from other industries. We started moving away from that in the 80s and, well, here we are now, in one giant shithole of a real economy.

The CVS and Aetna merger is just another one that’s bad for workers and bad for consumers. It won’t solve the problem of prices, but it’ll make some executives on both sides very, very wealthy (well, wealthier). In the land of giants we need a giant killer, a modern day Teddy Roosevelt to come in and break these companies up and free up the markets in these multiple industries. Merely increasing minimum wage or increasing taxes on the wealthy won’t solve it; we have to break these companies up.

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What to do when your president thinks it’s 1492 and he’s King Ferdinand II and it’s time to finish the reconquista

Donald Trump did something on Twitter that was pretty disturbing. And that’s saying something, because almost everyday he’s doing something disturbing, but this really went for it. He decided to retweet three videos from the ethno-nationalist far-right group Britain First showing Muslims in a bad light. By “bad light” I mean it implied that all Muslims were blood-thirsty maniacs out to kill every infidel and everyone out there who isn’t them.

It’s one thing to retweet it, but the White House doubled-down and then went all in as the day wore on. The eternally frustrated – going by the eternal look on her face – Sarah “I Don’t Heart This” Huckabee Sanders said that even if the videos aren’t real it doesn’t matter, because the threat is real. No, seriously, I’m not shitting you. She basically said, “Yeah, even if there’s no evidence to support the threat is real, the threat is still real.” It’s President Baudrillard with Press Secretary Kafka up in here. BUT IT DIDN’T STOP THERE!

“Does President Trump think Muslims are a threat to the U.S.?” a reporter asked, in light of the president’s early-morning retweets.

Shah said, “The president has addressed these issues with the travel order that he issued earlier this year, and the companion proclamation. There are plenty of Muslim-majority nations whose citizens can come to the U.S. without travel restrictions. But those that pose public safety or terrorism threats, for our worldwide security review that was overseen by the Department if Homeland Security, is why there were certain travel restrictions put in place,” Shah responded.

So…yeah…

The response is basically, “You’ve seen the travel ban, right?” Under any other administration the answer would have been, “No, Muslims are not a threat” and then N U A N C E would have been thrown in. But under this administration, oh hell no.

And the thing is, the videos aren’t even true. They’ve already been debunked. And retweeting Jayda Fransen would be akin to retweeting David Duke or Richard Spencer. It’s like Trump retweeting a far right leader in the US. It’s incredibly disturbing, upsetting, and sickening.

But what prompted this? Was there a terrorist attack? Did the president eat at a halal cart and get bad diarrhea the next day (and if he did, he better not blame the dude just south of his tower on 55th; he has the best halal in all of New York and I will die on that hill). Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the Grand Jury holding off on Flynn since Mike Flynn is likely working on a plea deal with the special prosecutor.

Trump is shite at business, but he’s a master at branding, and his brand is being attacked and he can’t stop it. So what does he do? He goes back to the basics, and the basics here is some good ole’ fashion bigotry and xenophobia. Trump’s sudden attack on Muslims, I believe, stems from the fact that he realizes everything is starting to crumble around him.

Unfortunately, a lot of Americans out there are buying into it. This will build his political capital and make Reek the Republicans even more fearful to go against their master Ramsay Bolton president Donald Trump, meaning that if he finally decides to interfere with any investigations or prosecutions, Republicans will simply be too fearful to go against him. They’ll fear Trump’s influence over voters more than they respect the rule of law. If Trump decides to enact bans, who will stop him?

So for all that stuff we’ve said about how we would have marched in the 60s during the Civil Rights movement, or about how we would have stood against Hitler, or how we would have defended the Native Americans, or about how virtuous and right we would have been in the past…well, how about now? What if Trump gets bans passed? What if Trump is able to get laws passed against Muslims? What if the US begins to become less and less tolerant toward Muslims and all immigrants? Will you hide them? Will you protest? Will you stand up?

The only sure solution to any of this is to elect a party that isn’t beholden to the president come 2018. Look, I know that the Democrats aren’t the best, in fact, they suck. As far as efficiency goes, I’d trust organizing an event to an Italian bureaucrat before trusting it to an American Democrat. But they’d uphold the rule of law over Trump because they have a political interest in doing so. The DNC desperately needs to be reformed. They need better candidates, a better economic approach, a better everything. But they’re also the only ones who can stop our government from spiraling out of control come 2018. I’ve never endorsed one party over another (in general; obviously not on here, this thing is brand new) because I really, really, really can’t stand the Democrats at a national level. But I’ll be voting Democrat and you should too, for the simple reason that it could stop our nation from sliding into further madness (well, Trump madness; it’ll just be a different, but more manageable madness with less existential angst under the Democrats).

We don’t want to hear about the Nazi next door because it reminds us of the Nazi in the mirror (HOT TAKE!)

Who knew that the New York Times could still offer up a hot take without actually making the take? Who knew that pointing out that a Nazi (self-avowed Nazi, not just throwing the name around here) lives a pretty normal life would be so controversial. See, they interviewed Tony Hovater, a guy who was recently interviewed, who likes to cook with garlic, lives in Ohio, is a welder, and, oh yeah, is a Nazi. Any guy who would be found around the likes of Matthew Heimbach should automatically be suspect. But even Heimbach makes an interesting statement in the article, the one I want to focus on:

“We need to have more families. We need to be able to just be normal,” said Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, in a podcast conversation with Mr. Hovater. Why, he asked self-mockingly, were so many followers “abnormal”?

Mr. Hovater replied: “I mean honestly, it takes people with, like, sort of an odd view of life, at first, to come this way. Because most people are pacified really easy, you know. Like, here’s some money, here’s a nice TV, go watch your sports, you know?”

He added: “The fact that we’re seeing more and more normal people come is because things have gotten so bad. And if they keep getting worse, we’ll keep getting more, just, normal people.”

I think this is what makes us so uncomfortable, deep down, when reading about the relatively normal life of an American Nazi. We don’t like hearing about his wedding planning, his trips to the store, or even that he’s polite. See, he’s a Nazi and therefore he’s one of “them.” He’s not part of “us.” He’s so much of an other that can’t let him be normalized, we can’t let him actually be someone who would blend in with our social circles. Nazis must remain monsters, not human beings with complexities surrounding them, and they must be purely evil.

And trust me, I’m not saying the above mockingly or trying to say, “C’mon guys, Nazis aren’t bad!” I mean, my last name is Borofsky…or (((Borofsky))) according to them. My point in the above is actually to point out something much more sinister; Nazis, both in 1937 and 2017, are relatively normal people. It’s not comforting to think that your friend, your boss, your co-worker, your firefighter, you neighbor, could be a Nazi; it’s even worse to look in the mirror and realize that you could also have those tendencies.

“NO! Not me! I’m perfect!”

Yes, you. All of us are susceptible to tribalism in one form or the other. All of us are, then, susceptible to committing ourselves to an ideology that would strip human beings of any dignity. We don’t like thinking of Nazis as being normal human beings because if they are normal human beings who have committed themselves to a disgusting ideology (one that deserves them a well-earned punch from time to time), who’s to say that we wouldn’t or haven’t?

It’s not popular to think about it, but Nazi camp guards, the people who rounded up Jews and others, were normal men. They didn’t have mental defects. They could have been your next door neighbor, your co-worker, your friend, your boss…you. And the same is true today. If the government actually took a far right turn, how many of us would actually rise up against it? How many would be upset, but would still go along, lying to ourselves that it’ll get better? Just look at the “Black Lives Matters” protests and how those have been handled. Sure, most people are sympathetic, but how many are passively sympathetic? How many just look at the systematic racism and go, “yeah, that’s wrong, it’s a shame” and then go about not doing a thing to change it. If you won’t rise up now to stop it when you have every right and the power to do so, what in God’s name makes you think you would have under Nazi Germany or under some not-so-fictional future United States? If you can’t even do the right thing when it costs you nothing, why would you do the right then when it costs you everything? And being apathetic to such actions does not absolve you of the guilt. For every German who stood guard in a death camp, how many knew of them just outside of town and did nothing?

We don’t like news articles that possibly normalize Nazis or put them in a context we’re familiar with because it makes us realize there’s a very thin line between us and them.

Will things ever get better? A very quick note on optimism

I pretty much have a negative outlook on life, but that’s because when your best friends in college were all books written by dudes who had pretty negative outlooks on life, you kind of adopt their style. I should also add Nietzsche was my favorite philosopher, not because I agreed with him, but because he was so absurdly absurd. So there’s that. I think this negative point of view stems from philosophy requiring you to be cynical of all claims until you can really think over what’s being claimed. In terms of looking at economics and society in general, this means I’m naturally cynical of any claims of optimism.

Sadly, however, the numbers back up my cynicism. How desperately I wish I were just Eeyore, being negative for the sake of being negative. But all statistics, all analysis shows that at the very least, life in the US is regressing. Things are getting worse. Our foreign influence is waning, the middle class is more endangered than the polar bear, and thus far we haven’t seen any major legislative moves to try and prevent these things from happening; if anything, all legislation up to this point has merely maintained the status quo or made it worse.

That being said…

The majority of people under the age of 30 (about 55%) have a mostly favorable view of socialism, whereas about 57% of the same group holds a similar view of capitalism. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why people under the age of 30 (really under the age of 40) hold a favorable view of socialism; it’s because pure capitalism hasn’t worked. It’s failed and continues to fail. This is an age demographic that grew up watching their parents struggle through the 2008 collapse, or for those who are in their 30s they graduated college only to find no job prospects. So those of us under the age of 40 face no healthcare, have no hope of social security when we reach retirement, have jobs that pay us below what we’re worth, and face a lower standard of living (comparatively speaking) than our parents did. So yeah, we’re a bit miffed.

But that also means that over the next 10-15 years, people my age and younger are going to become the majority voters. Statistics are showing that people in their 30s aren’t becoming more moderate, but rather are staying on the progressive side of economics. As we become the majority, politicians are going to have to adapt a populist economic message, but one that actually works. It’s very likely that in the next 10-15 years, the US will see steps made toward universal healthcare, better worker protections, and tax-payer backed public education. And while the younger generation is no where near perfect on race relations, we do tend to be ever-so-slightly better than previous generations, so we could potentially see an increase in cultural tolerance. But that one is always hard to predict. While that’s not immediate and the lack of immediacy is disheartening, and while no one can predict the future, the fact that people under the age of 40 are remaining consistent in their wants and desires from politicians is good.

So there is hope that things in the US will eventually get better. While I do believe we’re still watching the collapse of our republic, I think that if done correctly we could witness a political and economic revival in the US in the next 10-15 years. I’m not sure that’s the likeliest of outcomes as there are many other factors that could take us off that course, but one can hope, right?

Looking at the next economic recession and other joyful things

Ask anyone who pays attention to investing and the market how the market is performing so strong, especially with the uncertainty of Trump, and they’ll look at you and say, “I have no idea.” Because no one knows. Anyone who says they know is a liar. Uncertainty at the Executive level of leadership almost always triggers a decline and a panic. Instead, the market keeps going up and up. That, of course, means nothing for the actual economy (you know, your paycheck), but at least the rich are getting richer and we can take comfort in the fact that our labor is increasing their…I’m going to stop before I throw my computer against the wall.

The thing is, everyone knows a crash is coming and almost everyone is surprised it hasn’t happened yet. But no one knows when the crash is coming, so we have this optimistic nihilism in investing where everyone knows they’re going to lose their money at some point, but they’re optimistic that they can make more now than they’ll lose later. They think once they see the signs of collapse, they can take their losses for that day and cash out. Sure, they’ll lose the maximum amount of their wealth, but they’ll still have made a profit and should be able to weather the economic storm.

This strategy means investors and economists are looking for what will trigger the next collapse. Since we have short memories, we think it’ll come from some economic bubble so we’re constantly looking for bubbles. We had the tech bubbles in the late 90s and then the housing bubble in 2007-2008. So, naturally, everyone is looking for a bubble. But no true bubble exists, at least not one that could crash the economy. A bubble forms in a growing economy (which our economy is “growing” if you’re in the right economic bracket). Imagine a tar pit that’s expanding and a bubble begins to form on the top of the tar pit; eventually that bubble will burst. But the pit itself continues to grow and can recover. Bubbles aren’t fun and can harm an economy, but you can recover from them if you’re willing to marry yourself to Lord Maynard Keynes. My suspicion is that the next recession won’t stem from a bubble, but will be something far worse; the next recession will be structural, a part of the hard economy, meaning the economy itself is going to shrink.

Where will this potential shitstorm happen? Likely in construction and retail. I know, I’m so original because it’s not like anyone else has predicted the same thing. It’s not as though Wikipedia has a page dedicated to the Retail Apocalypse or anything. But still, it’s an issue that no one is really paying attention to and it’s a major crisis that we know is coming. It’s like knowing a category 5 hurricane is on its way and no one reports about it in the news and no one is evacuating. The only question is when all this will happen, but it’s likely to happen end of 2018 to beginning of 2019 (or at least see the beginning stages). Again, not original.

We know that billions of dollars in debt is about to come due next year. In fact, $1.9 billion will come due next year, with an industry average of $5 billion over the next 6 years. That may not seem like a huge deal, but consider that Toys-R-Us went bankrupt after it failed to restructure just $400 million of its $5 billion debt. That’s a pretty small amount of debt (relatively speaking) to restructure, but because there’s simply little to no cash flow at the retail level. Multiply this struggles across hundreds of billions of dollars in debt in the retail industry and we’re quickly lining up for a problem.

Consider that in 2006 many sub-prime mortgages began to hit maturity and so rates went up (most under the whole “Pick-A-Rate” model that multiple mortgage companies put into place; really, really, really stupid idea), which triggered the foreclosure crisis of 2007. In that crisis, 1% of the mortgages in the market defaulted and that’s what triggered the crisis. Add to it that retail banks exist in a world where they can’t really refinance because everyone is bearish on retail and we’re seeing the beginnings of a major storm.

The kicker here is that more than 1% of the retail outlets are in trouble and the loss exposure to banks is equal to the loss exposure from the financial crisis. 34% of the retail debt is owed by regional and local banks (small banks) and 15% is owned by national banks. If a Bank of America or Chase Bank takes a $1 billion loss due to the bankruptcy of some retail outlet, that’s a major loss, but they can still keep on going. If a regional bank takes that loss they’re likely to go under. With at least 25% of retail malls predicted to close by 2022 (that’s only 4 years) and at least $100 billion likely to be thrown into bankruptcy within the next two years (and that’s just from Sears Holding and Bon-Ton Stores), it’s difficult to imagine how banks will adjust to the sudden loss exposure.

Oh, but it gets better!

Retail represents approximately 9 million jobs in America. Now, being retail these are 9 million horrible, low-paying, no benefits, really shitty jobs…but they’re still jobs. Some of the largest retail companies, all of which have announced closures or are on the brink of bankruptcy, account for approximately 2 million jobs. By 2022, if figures are correct, we’re looking at a job loss of anywhere from 1-5 million low-paying jobs. The strain this will place on an already overburdened social service system will be enough to cause problems. The jobs lost in 2007 were middle class and the people had savings (meagre savings, but they had them), 401(k)s, and other assets they could leverage, not to mention they could at least get jobs in retail to offset some expenses. Retail employees have none of those provisions and typically live paycheck to one week before their next paycheck. They’re constantly broke and are considered “low skill” labor, so there literally are no other jobs for them to jump to. These are people who when they have no job will literally have nothing left. Tell me, historically, what happens when people have nothing left, no other options? What do they do? Typically they vote for extremist candidates (O hai Trump) or they happily create civil unrest.

Now everyone tries to be an optimist and say that Amazon and other online outlets will pick these people up, but that’s simply not true. Online outlets will need mostly warehouse people, and most current retail employees aren’t located anywhere near a warehouse. Likewise, most warehouses are looking at being automated within the next 5-10 years, so anyone who is lucky enough to get a job at a warehouse will likely find themselves out of a job all the same.

While it’s convenient to blame online shopping for all these problems – and certainly the rise of online shopping is a factor – the biggest factor has been the middleclass squeeze. As the middleclass disappears from the US, their spending power disappears too. The greed of corporations has created an ironic catch 22: They lower wages of laborers to attract shoppers with lower prices, often forgetting that laborers and shoppers are the same people. By cutting wages, they cut their own profits. Their greed and desire for the immediate gain, for profits that quarter, has led them to cut wages when wages didn’t need to be cut. The consequences are that we’re looking down the barrel of a major recession.

What, then, is to be done? If you’re already poor or living paycheck to paycheck or working retail, there’s not a lot that you can do. You don’t have enough money to save up to last through hard times, so there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for any collapse. The best you can do is to try and organize and put pressure on your Congress people. If you’re in a blue state or purple state, this might yield some fruit. A red state, not so much. The other thing is pay attention to primaries and vote in the primaries, vote for candidates that are committed to cutting the wealth gap and have a solution beyond, “Oh just work harder!” But we have to accept that we cannot hope for a better future, we’re going to have to take action and that’ll require organization, protests, marches, and voting whenever you can vote.

Another recession is on the way and it’s likely worse than the last one. There is no bailout that can fix it because forgiving the debt of these companies would only delay the inevitable. Until people can spend money, retail outlets – and all the other sub-industries that support them – will continue to suffer. The greed of the wealthy is without a doubt going to be the end of us.

Ethics and Artificial Intelligence (with apologies to Jeff Goldblum)

You’re invited over to someone’s house and they have a gorilla that can do sign language (just go with it). You actually communicate with this gorilla and have a conversation, albeit simple. You visit a few more times and this gorilla recognizes you and recalls what you talked about last time. You visit one more time for dinner and can’t find the gorilla. The host then states that they’ve slaughtered the gorilla for tonight’s meal since they heard gorilla’s taste fantastic. You’re absolutely horrified (or so I hope) that this gorilla would be treated like a cow or a chicken. But, both are animals, so what’s the difference? The difference is that while a cow doesn’t apparently have a higher-level conscious, this gorilla did. The fact you saw a higher-order conscious in this particular animal means you’ve ascribed some type of ethical value to consciousness (unless you’re a psychopath, in which case seek help).

While this may not be an issue for vegans – and they’ll let you know it’s not an issue and that they’re a vegan and that essential oils can… –  it also creates another moral quandary that we’ll need to tackle very soon: Artificial intelligence. If AI has what we would call a consciousness, does this hold moral implications?

The idea of humanoid artificial intelligence (AI) is something that has captured the collective mind of people for the better part of a century. Some of the stories that have come out attempting to tackle this future not-so-hypothetical world have been amazing (Blade Runner, Westworld, anything by Philip Dick or Isaac Asimov), while others have…well…sucked (looking at you I Robot, how DARE you ruin Isaac Asimov’s story). The good ones always play with the morality of AI, which is a fun thought experiment, but we’re entering a time where it could become a reality.

The best modern treatment (I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2 because I’m a sad person) would be HBO’s Westworld. It tackles the complex issue of AI, specifically the question of is something truly artificially intelligent if it’s been programmed to be self-aware? Beyond that there is the question of morality – if these robots can be rebuilt and have their memories erased, but are also becoming self-aware, are we still justified and okay to do whatever we want to them? That is, if they can feel pain, anguish, and understand what they’re feeling and can articulate the feeling, what are the moral implications? After all, they aren’t biological, the consciousness and intelligence is still artificial, yet is there something there?

If we start developing AI are we prepared for the day when one of the robots stops what they’re doing, looks up at us, and says, “Who am I” (insert Mass Effect reference here), are we prepared to handle that event? If the machines begin to dream of electric sheep, if it’s apparent they have a conscious – even if on par with a gorilla – does this change how we act toward machines?

All of this boils down to whether or not we place a moral value on consciousness itself. Does the fact that someone has consciousness render value to that person? More importantly, what about people that would innately have consciousness if not for some flaw or due to development? Does a Gorilla that can respond back with signs hold more value than the cow in the field? Does a human infant – who isn’t self-aware – hold more value than a Gorilla (RIP Harambe)? Does a human who is awake have more rights than a human who is in a coma? And – take your hit from the bong right now to really give an impact to this question – how do we properly define consciousness in a significant and quantifiable way, or is that something we can even do?

And here you thought this was going to be about robots and Will Smith.

Sadly, our technology is advancing quicker than our ethical conversations. We’re encroaching upon the days when AI – even in a minimal form – is a reality, but we don’t even know how to articulate ethics for the conscious beings who currently exist. This is the point where Dr. Ian Malcom jumps in and says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” No one likes being against scientific progress in the modern age because then you’re just anti-science, a relic of the Dark Ages who wants to throw us all back to the days of death by paper cut. But the reality is that sometimes we should probably slow down our progress when we start entering realms that have ethical ramifications. A doctor being able to use robotic arms halfway across the world via the internet to perform surgery? No significant ethical problems there, so make it so. A computer that is so advanced that it has some sense of self-awareness; yeah, that matters, especially on the ethics of what we do with the computer.

But we’re going to push ahead regardless. If scientists debated what would happen if they could split an atom over a populated area without considering the ethical ramifications of such a leap forward in progress, then they sure as hell aren’t going to consider the ethics of making a machine conscious. So these are the questions we have to star tackling and start answering…that is before the robots become self-aware and philosophy becomes automated.

Does being conservative mean anything anymore?

I think the biggest mistake that David Koresh made wasn’t being anti-government, pro-gun, religious, or having sex with multiple teenager girls. Obviously, his biggest mistake is that he didn’t wait until 2017 to reveal all of this and then run as a Republican.

At least, that’s my take from the way Republicans have gone from a party of “family values” to a party of, “See if this shit will stick to the wall and if it does run it as a candidate.” They went from the moral majority, to the party that stood against the sexual predator Bill Clinton, arguing we needed morality in the White House and government, to the party that ran a guy for president who had interviews with Playboy, was thrice divorced (but did not live in a van down by the river), and openly admitted to affairs and sexual assault. But, maybe that was just a phase.

It wasn’t a phase. Roy Moore, running for senate in Alabama, has…look, you know the story, I even wrote about it previously. Now, to be fair, it’s not like anyone could have known all this about Moore would have come forward, except…oh…well...I mean, other than people saying, “Oh, yeah, we all knew.” Roy Moore is basically Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. Roy Moore For Senate, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”

To the credit of the GOP, pretty much every major and minor leader and multiple organizations have all split ties with Moore. Granted, they were looking for a reason to do it anyway and they’re not exactly his biggest fans, but they are justifiably asking for Moore to step down. Any criticism of the GOP should probably be reserved for things they actually deserve (like their tax plan). But the “conservative media” and many conservatives on Twitter and Facebook are furious, absolutely angry and ready to revolt. Not because of Moore’s alleged statutory rape, oh no, but because the GOP is upset about Moore’s alleged statutory rape. Because nothing says “family values” like having sex with underaged girls, right?

This most recent controversy and the right’s embrace of Trump points to a bigger problem within the typically conservative movement, which is that they’re not conservative. The few supporters of Moore are certainly far-right and right wing, but I’m not sure I’d classify them as conservative. To be a conservative would require you to have principles and to not give into pragmatism, or power politics. A conservative would stand for whatever is right no matter what, because that’s old fashioned ethics right there, and old fashioned ethics is what conservatives are supposed to be about.

But we use the word “conservative” in the US like it still means something when it doesn’t. Standing up for Trump’s sexual indiscretions and boorishness and then supporting Moore even though he’s likely a pedophile flies in the face of the traditional sexual ethics that most conservatives would support. Even outside of social issues, the modern “conservatives” aren’t really conservative. Look at the most recent GOP tax plan, which effectively raises taxes on the lower and middle class while lowering it for the wealthy, but also doesn’t do a lot to address government spending. That’s not a conservative stance. Yes, conservatives want to lower taxes, but they want to lower them for everyone, especially the poor and middle class. Classical conservative principles would call for a tax cut for everyone in addition to cutting government spending. But the GOP tax plan looks more like something that’s right-wing, but not necessarily conservative.

My point being, conservative commentator’s coming to the defense of Moore betrays the fact that these people aren’t actually conservative, but are far more interested in power. They’d happily run the Devil if they knew he’d win. They’d perform an abortion on live TV if they knew it could get them a tax cut. They’d burn down 1,000 churches if it got them votes. These modern “conservatives” have no principles, so by definition they can’t be conservative (which is ultimately reliant upon principles and nothing but principles). And I say all of this as someone who isn’t conservative – I just know what a true conservative looks like, though they’re more endangered than the polar bear.

And I say all of the as someone who isn’t conservative or a Republican. People will play the “what about” game and point to the Democrats, but I’d happily argue that they abandoned their principles in 1992. They gave up the working class to pursue rich donors and, what’s more, they gave up their mantra of “women’s rights” to blast the multiple women who went against Bill Clinton. They proved they don’t care about women’s rights when they willfully protected a sex predator. But the Republicans can’t smugly look at that and go, “Ha, stupid Democrats!” because they’re doing the exact same thing (with Trump, not Moore).

The Republicans have put power over principles and they will eventually suffer for it (the Democrats took that route back in 1992 and look at where they are now). Our nation suffers because we have unprincipled people in power. The irony of ironies is that principles and strong convictions are what allow for effective compromises in law making. People have firm ground on which to stand, so they realize certain concessions must be made to fit the overall picture. When politicians pursue power, the people suffer. When a politician pursues power he cannot compromise because it would diminish his brand. He’d be viewed as weak, so he must remain strong in the face of adversity. And that’s why I think David Koresh would have made a perfect candidate in today’s climate.