A Millennial's View of the World

Category: Philosophy

Are Aliens Visiting The Earth?

The question of whether we are alone in the Universe is one that has perplexed humans for centuries. Reports of unidentified flying objects, alien encounters, and Government conspiracies have led many to believe that there might be Alien visitors that have come to the Earth. But are these reports really accurate? Is it really likely that foreign visitors from distant planets have visited us on Earth?

The Fermi paradox proposed by Enrico Fermi and Michael Hart in the 1970s postulated that with the vast size of the Universe, there must be other intelligent lifeforms abound. This was related to the Drake Equation, an equation postulated by Frank Drake, which assigned probabilities to various likelihoods, such as the fraction of planets that could support life that actually do support life. Using their probabilities, these scientists all concluded that intelligent alien life must exist and that it would be likely that those lifeforms have visited us.

The calculations created by the scientists made various assumptions about the probabilities of various facts with which we really have no idea regarding their accuracy. All we really have as evidence is our own knowledge of life on Earth. I would argue that our knowledge should lead us to have serious doubt that alien civilizations have visited modern humans.

In order for alien lifeforms to be visiting us on Earth, the following questions must all be answered in the affirmative:
1. Does life exist outside of Earth?
2. Are any of those life forms complex?
3. Have any complex lifeforms reached the level of complexity of humans?
4. Have any human-like or more intelligent lifeforms been able to leave their planet and explore other civilizations in distant solar systems or galaxies?
5. Have those intelligent lifeforms come across or near Earth at precisely the moment that Humans have ascended to having the capability to record their presence.

1. Does life exist outside of Earth?

The probability that there are living things outside of Earth is almost a certainty. Recent astronomical research has revealed that there are thousands of nearby, observable planets just in our galaxy. With over one hundred billion stars in the Milky Way and over one hundred billion galaxies in the observable Universe, there is almost a certainty that the process that occurred on Earth which brought about life could also have happened on other planets as well. There are too many planets for it to be a one-time occurrence.
That being said, we only have one concrete example of the formation of life, and we still haven’t been able to replicate the process, so we don’t really know how likely it is for sure. But, it is pretty safe to say that whatever natural process occurred on Earth could likely have occurred on another, similar planet.

2. Are any of those life forms complex?

Assuming that the Universe is crawling with bacteria or similar simple life forms, how can we know for certain that any of these bacteria have teamed up to form multi-cellular organisms? For over two billion years, life on Earth was perfectly content to remain in a single cellular form. It wasn’t until the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago, that we started seeing the abundance of complex life begin to form.

Life needed billions of years of uninterrupted prosperity to reach a point in which it started evolving to complex levels. One asteroid could have wiped out the whole process. All we know is that life takes a long time to advance from simple, unconscious forms into breathing, conscious beings. We know that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, and thus it took about one fifth of the total duration of the Universe for complex life to form on Earth.

Knowing that it did happen here, we can probably safely say that over that time, some of those living beings on distant planets formed into complex lifeforms, but even with the vastness of the Universe, we really can’t know how often the conditions were perfect enough for long enough to facilitate that occurrence.

3. Have any complex lifeforms reached the level of complexity of humans?

With hundreds of millions of years of various evolutionary paths taking place between the Cambrian explosion and the evolution of early humans, we can see that the path to intelligence is riddled with unintelligent dead ends. There are millions of species of animals on Earth, but only one has the complexity necessary to communicate with language, let alone travel throughout space (although we out-survived any competitors like Neanderthals, but they were part of the same unique evolutionary path).

There could be billions of planets in the Universe that meet the requirements of question 2 above, but only feature animals with the intelligence level of the rat or lizard.
We can see how unique our intelligence is by observing our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. Only seven million years ago, the ancestors of chimpanzees and humans were the same people. A very unique, small set of genetic mutations for the ancestors of humans separated the two of us over that short time. Without those specific mutations, we could still be living in a world of chimpanzees.

Given another seven million years, would the descendants of chimpanzees have human-like intelligence? We have no idea. All we know is that there are many more possibilities leading to non-intelligence or moderate intelligence than there are to human-like intelligence.

Based on our earthly observations, I would say that we can’t assign a more likely than not probability to the fact that human level intelligence could evolve on multiple occasions, even with the trillions of possible worlds in the known universe.

4. Have any human-like or more intelligent lifeforms been able to leave their planet and explore other civilizations in distant solar systems or galaxies.

Maybe the evolution of beings with human intelligence isn’t incredibly improbable and we are not alone in the Universe? Maybe there are thousands of civilizations throughout the Universe that have been capable of the exact technological capabilities that we currently possess- sending out signals to the cosmos, flying non-living objects to the reaches of our solar system and sending living beings to orbit and nearby moons?

In that case, it is still highly improbable that we would ever make contact with those other civilizations. We can only hypothesize based on the level of our current technology, not based on some future technology that we may have. Our first radio waves are 100 light years away, relatively close in the grand scheme of the Universe. In order for us to be able to contact another civilization it would have to be really, really close, and that’s just to get a radio signal.

As of right now, we have no way of travelling beyond our solar system. We would have to hypothesize a civilization much more advanced than our own that would be able to send space ships that could arrive here from distant stars and galaxies.

An alien species capable of reaching us is thus a purely theoretical one, with no substantiation in our actual known Universe.

5. Have those intelligent lifeforms come across or near Earth at precisely the moment that Humans have ascended to having the capability to record their presence.

Perhaps an alien species somewhere in the Universe is (or was) more advanced than humans, satisfying all of the requirements in questions 1-3. Perhaps this alien has surpassed all known human technology and created space ships that travel near the speed of light, sending probes to the distant ends of the Universe to search for life.
Even still, the probability that this species would have stumbled upon Earth during the precise period of time that humans evolved to our current level of intelligence seems highly improbable. The dinosaurs were around for hundreds of millions of years. It would be much more likely that an alien species would have stumbled across the dinosaurs, seen no evidence of intelligent life, and continued on their journey.
Humankind has only been interesting from an intelligence perspective for a few thousand years. The odds of the alien species leaving its planet in search of distant life forms and coming across Earth at the exact moment that humans have ascended to technological advancement seems almost ridiculous.

In conclusion, the possibility that we will be visited by aliens during our lifetime seems so remote and improbable that the rational belief would be to conclude that we are “alone”. There hasn’t been a credible enough account of an alien encounter, and the unidentified flying objects spotted in the sky almost certainly have a terrestrial or celestial origin (not an extra-terrestrial one).

We have no idea how life forms and how likely that occurrence is. The Universe is relatively young when compared to the known gestation period for complex life. Even on Earth, a planet abound with life, intelligent life is incredibly rare. Humans are still incapable of traveling outside of our solar system, and thus aliens would have to be far more advanced than we are. Even if these aliens have more advanced methods of travel, the odds of them stumbling upon us at this exact moment are minuscule.

We still have no idea how many planets in the Universe are capable of supporting life, but even if that number is high, we should not believe that aliens are visiting the Earth.

The Rule of Collision

The Rule of Collision is a philosophy based on the idea that the world is full of individuals and forces (natural and manmade) travelling on their own paths and colliding with each other at various intervals. It is a realist philosophy that refutes the Law of Attraction, a popular philosophical concept which posits supernatural forces connecting human thoughts with the external world.

The Law of Attraction
Many self-help gurus have made an excellent living touting the so-called law of attraction. This “law” stipulates that by focusing thoughts towards certain goals or objects, the individual will attract those goals or objects towards him or herself via supernatural forces that connect thoughts with the external world. For example, under the law, by thinking about success, and fixating on thoughts that will lead towards success, the individual will actually attract success towards him or herself. By thinking about bad thoughts and fixating on failure, the individual will inevitably fail.

Any realist is aware that such a law does not exist. There are plenty of people who may focus on success, make a plan, stick to it, and still fail in life. There are also people who seemingly just come in to luck, despite the fact that he or she may be preoccupied with negative thoughts. Some are just born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and really have no ability to alter their living situation, despite their best efforts. And, some have their plans cut short by unexpected bad luck, like getting a disease or in to a bad accident.

There is no immutable law that connects thoughts with reality. Simply thinking of something cannot bring it towards someone. However, that does not mean that people are not capable of guiding their lives in the direction that they choose.

The Rule of Collisions
All people are individual actors, navigating their way through their lives like cars through streets. A driver must navigate his or her car around other cars, random objects, and various things that may come in to his or her path. Throw in enough traffic (and some wild driving), and the driver will inevitably collide with other objects. These collisions will alter the car’s course, and force the driver to re-chart his or her path. The driver may have a destination in mind, but that destination will change as the collisions continue to occur. Some of these intervening objects may slow the car’s course, but some will speed things up, getting the driver ever closer to his or her destination.

The roadways of life are full of other people who are navigating along the same pathways. There are also non-human actors, or forces, that will affect one’s journey. Each person or force represents another potential collision that will alter one’s path. These forces are beyond the individual’s control, but every individual will inevitably collide with them as he or she goes through life. The Rule of Collisions is that the individual can only steer him or herself in the direction of positive forces, and away from negative ones, but that one’s destiny is shaped by the paths of the forces that he or she collides with as much as it is shaped by the paths that he or she chooses. One can only hope that his or her collisions will be beneficial, and that he or she will continue to get to desired destinations.

Someone who gets a cold only gets sick because the path of the virus collided with that individual. The path of the virus collided with the individual because the path of someone already infected with the virus collided with that individual. The person already infected with the virus got sick because he had his own collision with another sick person. If it were not for this preceding series of collisions, the person with the cold would not have gotten sick. The only collision that he or she was in control of was his or her collision with the last sick person, but he or she still got sick because of all of the preceding collisions.

One can do all that he or she can to avoid colliding with sick people, but in the end, every person must come to grips with the fact that in the ordinary course of life, there will inevitably be collisions that change our lives for better or worse. An entrepreneur who creates a new product can only succeed because another individual collides with the product and decides to purchase it. A runner who wins a race will only win because his abilities were greater than those of the athletes that he raced against. No matter what happens in life, we are affected by people and forces around us as much as we are by our own thoughts, decisions and actions.

Karma is the concept that doing kind acts and treating others well will inevitably lead to kindness and good luck in return (and that doing bad acts will lead to bad luck). Of course, there is no magical balance sheet that exists which will ensure good luck to those who do well to others. In fact, there is no guaranty that someone who performs acts that are altruistic will have good luck at all. But, doing good acts will at least make more positive collisions possible than there would be if no good acts were done at all.

Someone who has received a favor will likely remember that favor for a long time. To a person who is raising money for a cause, a simple donation of $10 or $20 will make a serious impact, especially if only a few have donated. An act like this should not be done with an expectation of the good act that will be returned. But, enough good acts in the aggregate will inevitably lead to return favors for the altruist.

A good act will represent a positive collision on the path for the person that has been helped, which will send him or her in a more positive direction in life. This collision will lead to further collisions that may never have been possible without the good act that had originally been done. Once on a positive path, this person will likely have more positive collisions, and eventually, he or she may collide with the person that helped him or her in the past, and be able to return the favor.

The Rule and life decisions
Many self-help books instruct individuals to write down their goals, starting with a vision of where they would like to be in 10 years, and then constructing the steps that will get them there. As things change in the individual’s life, he or she can reassess his or her goals, and write down new action plans. Techniques like this will likely be beneficial to many, as focusing on the direction of a positive life path will often lead towards desired destinations.

However, there is nothing necessarily wrong with a “go with the flow” attitude in life. Every person is able to define his or her own path, and for many, a traditional definition of success may not be what he or she desires. For some, the journey is more important than the destination, and it is the uncertainty over what collisions may occur next that will lead to joy in life. Sometimes, individuals may achieve greater success by taking paths that would not involve traditional routes towards societal definitions of success.

Many business people find success in non-traditional paths. Take the example of J, a person who has achieved great financial success. J had a rough childhood and very little formal education. He was only able to get a job unlocking doors for a living (for people who had locked themselves out of their homes and cars). After a couple years of working for someone else, he bought his own tool kit and put ads in the Yellow Pages. He got responses to his ads, built a steady business, and was able to support himself from door unlocking. He then trained a friend to unlock doors, and hired him to do the work that he once did. He replicated the process in another city, and began managing several locksmiths in multiple cities. He now makes an excellent living from his business. He didn’t start out thinking that he would have a successful business in 15 cities. He simply followed the path that he was on and made decisions that would lead to greater success.

The Rule and the job market
Spending too much time self-analyzing and trying to discover goals can in fact impede an individual’s progress in life. A lot of people may have a dream job or school in mind, and will continually keep working towards that goal, despite the fact that there is no reality of that goal being achieved along their current path.
The job application process is an interesting example of the Rule of Collision in motion. For every job listing, there are the people doing the hiring, the person who gets hired, and several candidates who will not get hired. In today’s job market, a hundred applicants may apply for a position, but only one’s path will collide with the path of the hirer. The winning applicant will likely have a stellar educational background, lots of relevant experience, and a winning personality. All of the other applicants, through no fault of their own, will likely have a deficiency in one of these aspects that the winning candidate does not. The winning candidate chose the path and experienced the collisions that made him or her right for the job.

Sometimes, an alternate path may be required to get an individual to the goals which he or she desires. In a job market with more employers than applicants, any individual will eventually find a job if enough applications are sent out. But, if there is a dearth of employers and an abundance of applicants, many applicants will never achieve their desired positions.

In this sort of environment, many will find success by forcing the collisions that would otherwise not be likely to occur. Rather than sitting at home and applying for jobs that will likely have more qualified applicants applying as well, many will find success by seeking out the person that he or she wants to be in 10 or 20 years directly, and arranging a meeting with that person. Most successful individuals love to talk about how they became successful. Rather than asking for a job upfront, asking for advice on getting a job may be a better strategy. After the meeting, the prospect should stay in touch with the mentor, and volunteer his or her services to assist that person while he or she is looking for a job. The mentor may not immediately have something for the prospect to do, but at some point down the road, if work needs to be done, the mentor will remember the offer. If a prospect forces enough collisions with enough successful people, he or she will eventually find employment.

The Rule and failure
Every individual will inevitably fail at something in his or her life. There is no way to avoid all of the negative forces in the world. There will be people who seek to hurt others for their own personal gain. There will be times when there are no possible positive collisions. And, there will be times when a negative collision occurs which ruins an opportunity. In these situations, the only option is to remain optimistic and to keep trying.

As hard as it is to stay optimistic in these situations, people must always realize that life could be worse. When out of a job and low on cash, there will likely be a family member or friend who can provide a place to stay and some food or cash. For those who have no family or friends to help, there will likely be a government entity or charity that will help. And, even in the worst possible scenario, there is always the option to beg on the street and live off of the kindness of others. Obviously no one wants to be in this situation, but, it is a real situation that many are faced with in their lives.

Whenever things are bad, there is always the possibility that life could be worse. And even if they were worse, there is always a path to success. The person living on the street had a series of collisions in his or her life that led him or her to this unfortunate place. It is important to give to the homeless, even on rare occasions, as anyone could end up in such a situation. Without the charity of others, there would be no hope for the least lucky people in life.

Those who are fortunate enough to have a job or a successful company must always be prepared for the fact that it could all disappear one day.  It is important to be thankful for the good things and life, and to continue to try to progress in life, as there is no telling what collision is around the corner. At the same time, there is no need to settle in life. Everyone lives only one life, and for those who are not happy with their situation, there are always more options out there. Sometimes, the next collision around the corner will be the one that leads to a better path.

The Rule and fate
For many, the thought of a life with random collisions is scary. It would be nice to have predictability in life, to know that just by focusing on something; fate will attract it. However, the reality is that there is no way to predict the future, and life will bring whatever it does.

That being said, when looking back at the past, there is one series of interconnected collisions that make up the lives of all individuals. This interconnectivity is set in stone, and cannot be undone once time has passed. Looking forward; there will also be one interconnected infrastructure that is formed based on the collisions that people will encounter in the future. The collision of paths in the future will be guided by the collisions that have already occurred, together with new collisions that will arise.

To a certain extent, the future is already set in stone; it is just unclear how the pathways will connect. All that is known are the connections that have already been formed via prior collisions. These connections can be used to guide the direction that the individual will head in.

The future may be a scary thing, and there may be good or bad luck in store for each individual. One can only take control over that which he or she has power, which is the direction that he or she is heading. One can focus his or her thoughts and decisions on a certain goal, but it will inevitably be other individuals and other forces that one cannot control that will affect the actual destination. All one can do is remain optimistic, keep moving forward and keep focusing on that which he or she desires. This will not guaranty that one will reach his or her destination, but it will guaranty that he or she enjoys the ride.

Finding Meaning, Purpose and Morality in a Godless World

In this latest instalment of my series of articles on fundamental philosophical issues, I go beyond discussing the issue of whether there is a supernatural being, and move on to the next logical step, formulating a paradigm for how we can find meaning, purpose, and morality in a world without such a being.

What is the Meaning of Life?
The meaning of life is simply life itself. There is no meaning beyond our existence and our life experience. There is no greater meaning to it all that can somehow transcend our world. This is it.

So now what?
The all too unfortunate side of this realization is the potential for nihilism or hedonism. Nihilism is the idea that because there is no greater meaning to it all, we should live with the attitude that life is hopeless and pointless. The nihilist would spend life sitting around, moping, and waiting for the inevitable end.

The opposite of the nihilist is the hedonist. The hedonist believes that since there is no greater meaning to it all, he is free to do as he pleases, when he pleases, without any regard for others, and with the only goal of seeking maximum personal pleasure. The hedonist would spend life committing crimes, doing drugs to excess, and walking over others for his or her own benefit.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these attitudes. There is nothing universal that would preclude someone from living a life as such and feeling perfectly content. However, most people would probably be more content not living with either of these attitudes. We do live in a real world with real consequences, and living without regards to others will subject a person to the consequences that individuals in our society have created to deter such attitudes (i.e. laws, social isolation, etc.).
These are not the only options available for living a life in a godless world. There is a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the rational person, and it’s not in the form of a supernatural being.

The amazing thing about there being no greater meaning to life beyond life itself is that we have the power to create meaning. Everyone has a blank slate to work with to craft a story that will please himself or herself. We craft a meaning by choosing a purpose. We have the power to decide our purpose, or even several purposes that we will work to fulfill. By fulfilling a purpose, and working to do so, we can live our lives in such a way as to become content with our own existence and the world around us. After one purpose has been fulfilled, we can choose a new one. The meaning of life can be to find and fulfill life purposes.

A purpose can really be anything. It can be to do works of art, start a business, help the poor, enforce the law, help the sick, or create scientific developments. It can even be to start a family, travel, or to spend time with friends or a significant other. Whatever makes us content with our lives. Although this paradigm is very simple, it is also very empowering. Life is ours for the taking. We are in control of our own destiny.

One of my purposes is to create a legacy that will live on after my death. Why would this matter if I don’t believe that I will have the ability to experience that legacy? It is for the same reason that someone would send a check to a charity to help a group of people that he will never see or never meet. Or, from a more selfish perspective, why a celebrity would want to be considered famous to a person that he will never encounter. We as humans share the common experience of life, regardless of the time or place we live in. If there is one way we can transcend our own existence, it is through the life of another. Although their life experiences may have ended long ago, historical figures constantly remind future generations of the experience they had by cementing their names in the history books.

The hedonist or the nihilist lives a life without purpose, and will likely never find spiritual fulfillment. The hedonist could say that his purpose is to do whatever he feels like. If he can truly find meaning in fulfilling that purpose, then perhaps that will create content. But there are very few people who would find such a meaning.

The Religious Paradigm
Under most religions, the meaning of life is simply that each individual life amounts to some minor part of a greater plan by some invisible being or beings. Many questions remain unanswered. What is the meaning of the greater plan? What is my meaning within the greater plan? Why would such a greater plan include suffering? What is the meaning of the creator, and where did he come form? These questions create more confusion and despair than the theories pacify.

The purpose of life in most religions is to follow a list of rules (many of which are ridiculous and inconsistent with contemporary life) that an invisible being wants us to follow in order to gain access to a better afterlife. What is the purpose of the afterlife? What is the purpose of each particular rule? What if the purpose I would like to fulfill conflicts with one of the rules?
The religious paradigm is incomplete. It simply makes up a story and calls it a meaning. An existentialist paradigm may not be as fantastic or magical, but it is rational and complete. The meaning of your life is whatever you want it to be.

An obvious argument against the concept of choosing your own purpose in life is that someone could choose the purpose of hurting or killing other people. What would make this purpose wrong if it made that person content? Would there not be something universally wrong with hurting others?
There is nothing universally wrong with hurting others. But, a world in which people hurt others would be worse than a world in which people did not. Although there is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, or universal moral code that we should adhere to, the fact remains that there are several independent beings in the world whose interests will inevitably collide. Morality is simply a set of rules that we create to organize human interactions. There is no hard and fast set of rules, but we as a species have been very successful at crafting rules that provide all individuals with the opportunity to fulfill their purposes.

If there is one thing I learned in law school, it’s that there is a solution in law to almost any possible problem resulting from human interaction. The law is constantly evolving as new problems are solved, and old solutions are replaced with better ones. Of course, laws can be bad. For example, a law permitting the killing of someone for having the wrong religious belief. Why would we say that such a law is immoral? It is because such a law is a bad solution to a problem, and there are better solutions that will create more opportunity for happiness.

Many philosophers have searched for a unifying theory of morality. For example, the utilitarian theory states that morality is simply the solution that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The theory attempts to measure levels of good and compare them. This theory fails when you start trying to measure levels of good. Is the value of a great scientist’s life more important than a bum’s? How about two bums? What of a law that provides a huge benefit to a large group, but a serious detriment to one or two people? The world is simply too complex to determine values for every possible interest and measure those values against the values of others.

Another theory is Kant’s categorical imperative, which basically states that an action taken by an individual in any situation should be such an action that should be Universally taken by any person in such a situation. If I see another person’s house, it should be a Universal maxim that I should not break in and steal that person’s TV. The problem with this theory is that it only works for simple human problems. What if there are several competing good things to do. Should I take a good job in a far away city, or stay home to help my ailing mother? There is no universal maxim to solve this problem. A similar situation arises if there are two bad choices.

We as a society have made rules to guide people to make better choices, and to punish choices that we think are bad. We create morality to try and shape the best possible world, but there is no perfect world.

Of course politics is an inevitable factor in discussing morality. Is the United States moral code the best for regulating human interactions? Or is a more socialist European nation like Sweden’s better? Who should determine what is the best moral code for the people of all nations? There is no easy way to make such determinations. Settling who has the best moral code and what it should be is a great goal of humanity that will involve inevitable conflicts in opinion. However, there is no room for moral relativism in this theory. That is to say, there are certain moral codes that are vastly inferior and should not be considered acceptable forms of organizing a society simply because they are accepted by the individuals in that society. For example a society that permits ritual human sacrifice would be vastly inferior to one that did not. It may be for the good of humanity for a more powerful society to enforce its superior moral code on the society committing ritual sacrifice in order to provide a better life for the individuals in that society.

In any discussion of morality and atheism, Hitler and Stalin will inevitably be discussed as examples of what happens when atheists are given the power to enforce their moral views. These individuals led their nations based on what they believed were moral principles. Under skewed forms of utilitarianism, both believed that they were acting for the greater good by killing political dissidents, the mentally ill, Jews and other ethnic minorities. These dictators had inferior moral codes by which they organized their societies. It was not their atheism that led to their horrible deeds, but rather their skewed versions of morality. We have realized that these moral codes were absolutely abhorrent, and should never be allowed to exist again.

These examples of immoral atheists should also be compared with the hundreds of immoral actions by dictators and societies acting around religious foundations of morality. The problem with religious morality is that religions set a moral code based on the prevailing views of morality at the time and in the society that the writers of the religion were living. The Jewish moral code is based on the sections of law in the of the old testament, which were written approximately 2600 years ago (read up on the documentary hypothesis for more information on the origins of the old testament). The Christian moral code is based around morality from 2000 years ago. Islam 1500 years ago. Of course religions generally have their own case law, or religious scholarly writings, interpreting the primary sources and allowing some change. However, these writings are bound by rigid books written by ancient people. The books cannot be amended or changed to reflect changes in prevailing views of what is right or wrong.

Contrast with the US constitution. The US constitution provides a moral code from approximately 250 years ago. However, the constitution permits amendments, meaning that the primary source of law can change as morals change. This flexibility permits change and evolution.

Realizing that there is no god and that our existence is simply a great fluke may be a scary experience, but it does not mean that life cannot persist without spiritual enlightenment. There is opportunity to find meaning in life, fulfill a purpose, and act in a moral way. We have the power to shape our world and our own destiny. We must take control of the power while we are here, for it will not last forever.

The Post-Recession World

The world has changed. Many ideologies that were previously thought to be correct by many have now been debunked. We are attaining a new level of understanding of how our society should work, and when governments should intervene in private actions. However, the greatest change is yet to come.

The Profit Incentive
Many conservatives thought that corporations should be in charge of everything, and that the private sector will always operate more efficiently than the public one. They really felt that taking away the autonomy of the health insurance companies was akin to crushing the free market and leading America down a slippery slope to socialism. After all, if the government is controlling your health insurance, what says that they can’t tell you what work you can do or what business you can operate.

The reality is that there has to be a balance in society between private enterprise and public organizations. Our society has decided that fire protection, crime prevention, justice, delivery of mail, national defense, record keeping, education of our children, and several other services are best placed in the hands of the government. Meanwhile, the private sector is in charge of distributing consumer goods, food, professional services and real property, among others. Why is this?

There are certain services for which the profit incentive is fundamentally misaligned with the good of society, whereas there are other services for which that incentive allows more goods and services to be produced, allows society to progress, and gives us the sense of freedom that drives the democratic system.

Policing is a perfect example of this misalignment. Imagine if police would only protect you if you purchased crime insurance. The poor would be subject to murder and violence without any repercussion. Vigilante justice would prevail, and total anarchy would result.

Computers, on the other hand, are best controlled by the profit incentive. Computer companies are incentivised by profits to make newer and greater computers so consumers will buy them. Some individuals may be priced out of the computer market, but that can be considered acceptable by society. Not having a computer may be a disadvantage, but it would not cause pain and suffering like not having healthcare does.

The fundamental difference is whether society decides that something should be a right or a privilege. The privilege of owning a house, getting a computer or hiring an attorney puts those items in the private category. But the right of being protected from fire or crime, or of getting decent medical treatment if sick necessitates government intervention.

The Exchange System
Although I did not get my public option, the Obama health care exchange system will serve to realign the health care system in a positive way. With the public option, the government insurer would be able to bargain with health providers to lower expenses.

The exchange system simply keeps the insurer as a middle man. However, customers are able to collectively bargain with the insurance companies by making individual choices on a grand scale (by simply purchasing the cheapest and best health insurance). The insurance companies will be forced to bargain with the healthcare providers to maintain lower costs. If an insurer does not bargain, a different insurer who does bargain will get their customers. The government will subsidize insurance costs for the middle class, and therefore will be able to dictate which plans get subsidies.

The inevitable result of this exchange will be the emergence of a select group of extremely large insurance providers, possibly just one. The government will either control this one insurer, or break it up into two that would compete. Health care costs will be lower, and insurance will be available to more individuals.

The Regulated Private Sector
There are some categories in society that do not neatly fit into the public or private sectors. Hence, the regulated private sector becomes necessary.

The illicit drug market is a great example of the consequences of a completely unregulated, lawless market. When I say lawless, I realize that there are laws banning drugs. But there are no laws governing the sale, transportation, cultivation, or delivery of drugs, which means that any disputes in the industry must be settled through vigilante justice. Hence the large crime wave that emerged along with the drug wars of the eighties and early nineties. Gangs were fighting for drug selling territory, and since there was no legitimate mechanism for settling disputes, they resorted to violence and murder to do so.

The war on drugs demonstrates that even though society may have an extreme animosity towards certain goods or services, the fact that there is a demand for those goods will inevitably create a market. It is therefore the prerogative of government to provide a mechanism by which that demand can be satisfied through legal means. Otherwise, anarchy results. The government needs to legalize, regulate, and create disincentives for the use of drugs, not simply throw every drug user or dealer into jail or prison.

The Financial Sector
The financial sector is another example of a market that needs government regulation to succeed. The recent crisis has shown us that if left to their own devises, really smart individuals will make poor decisions if their incentives are misaligned. Why would banks take such risky bets on mortgage backed securities when it should have been obvious that the system would be crushed if housing prices fell. The answer is that banks, as public corporations, are incentivised by short term profits, not long term sustainability. Mortgage backed securities provided such great returns that bankers did not think about the risks that they were taking. It is for this same reason that Enron continued its fraudulent accounting practices until it became insolvent, or that Madoff kept taking new money into his Ponzi scheme even though he knew that it would collapse if new money stopped coming in.

The government has to step in to protect investors’ money from people who are investing it unwisely for current gains. The libertarian mantra of less government is always better is now a fallacy. Sometimes, government intervention is necessary. Monopoly busting was an early form of positive government intervention. Post-depression financial reforms kept the financial system relatively stable. It was when those reforms were reversed that this crisis occurred.

The Fed
I recently had a conversation with an individual who claimed to be part of the end the fed movement. He concluded that the Federal Reserve caused the great recession by keeping interest rates too low for too long, thereby encouraging too much borrowing, which led to the mortgage meltdown.

Although keeping rates low may have been a small factor in causing certain individuals to get mortgages who should not have, low rates did really not matter that much. Many sub-prime borrowers were given mortgages regardless of whether they could afford the interest payments. Banks gave out variable rate mortgages knowing that rates would eventually go up and that the borrower would not be able to afford his or her house. It was the banks, who were not properly regulated by the federal government, that caused the recession; not the Fed.

The Federal Reserve, led by Bernanke, has had just as much of an impact, if not more, than the federal government, led by Paulson, Geithner and Obama, in ending the recession and leading to the current turnaround. While the government was managing $350 billion in bailouts to artificially prop up the economy, the Fed was managing trillions. The Fed is like the great counterbalance in our society. It is independent from the government, so as to ensure that economically sound decisions are not affected by politicians judgment. It has to be, and needs to remain independent.

I have been thinking a lot about what this all means in the grand scheme of things. The truth is, the economy, law and politics are all insignificant when compared to the revolution that we are currently experiencing. Humanity is at the end of its 60,000 year reign as the most advanced species on earth, and is about to be the first species to be replaced by its own creation.

Recently, a 2,000,000 year old fossil was discovered showing an intermediary species between humans and apes. Although this species may not necessarily be a direct ancestor of modern humans, it provides even greater proof of our natural origins, providing evidence of an intermediary species between early hominids and Homo Erectus, the most successful hominid in the history of the world. Homo Erectus roamed the earth from over a million years ago to the time of early humans . The new species is just one species discovered among many that have already been unearthed. We lived alongside one of our inferior relatives, the Neanderthal, for almost 10,000 years in Europe, a period ending approximately 20,000 years ago. That is a period of time longer than human civilization has existed as we know it.

Humans have been continually evolving, even though from a physiological standpoint, we are probably not very different from our ancestors who lived alongside those Neanderthals. Through civilization and technology, we have been able to maximize the productivity of our earthly forms, providing ourselves with extreme amounts of knowledge and using technology to allow us to interact with the world in a more efficient way. We have created numerous ways to express ourselves, and have made the world smaller by creating efficient methods of transportation.

The Singularity
Unfortunately, we have reached the limits of our earthly forms. Futurists predict that within the next 50 years, computers will have matched and surpassed our level of intelligence. They call this the singularity principle, as the distinction between humans and computers will no longer exist, making us one singular being.

The logical conclusion is that humans will have to become one with computers in order to compete. Those of us that survive to that period of time will have to augment ourselves, becoming cyborgs. Those who cannot afford this augmentation will become an inferior species that will likely eventually die out, as the Neanderthals and dinosaurs did.

The only thing that will prevent this from happening is literally a global catastrophe like one never seen by humanity. Technology as we know it would have to be destroyed. Even the greatest catastrophes, the great world wars or global epidemics, could only delay the progress of technology, not halt it. In many cases, those catastrophes actually increased progress. Although an earth shattering event could happen, I would give it an extremely low likelihood, since economics, technology, diplomacy and science have allowed us to progress to a point where such threats are diminished. A great technological roadblock (such as the end of Moores law, which will happen within the next 20 years) may present itself, but it will be overcome eventually, as all technological roadblocks are.

We Become God

After thousands of years of looking to the skies thinking that there were invisible creatures out there more advanced than ourselves that crafted us into being, it is time to realize that we are in fact the creator creature. We will create life forms much more advanced and complex than our naturally occurring selves, and those life forms will create even more advanced life forms. The only thing we can be certain of is that we do not travel to the past to visit our ancestors, at least not in such a way as to make our presences known.

And So It Goes
We stand at the foot of the great turning point in humanity. We are about to experience the greatest global economic and technological boom that the world has ever seen. We have braved the storm of the great recession, and now will be passengers on this great ride to the end of humanity as we know it. Hopefully, we will maintain our health and life so that we can be a part of it. Otherwise, c’est la vie.

Why America Needs The Public Option

The health care reform debate has been at the forefront of the national media spotlight since Americans got tired of talking about the economy. What amazes me is how few economic discussions are involved in assessing what should be done to fix America’s broken health care system. Instead, the discussions focus on hyperboles, emotions, and a whole lot of fear mongering. This is my analysis of the situation.

Part I: The Problem

Profit Maximization
Insurance companies are corporations. Corporations have one underlying goal: to maximize profits for their shareholders. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a fact. Insurance companies are not in business to make sure everyone is insured, they are in business to sell policies and make money.

Think about insurance policies like TVs. If it costs you $50 to make a TV, but you can sell just as many for $100 as you would for $50, it would be stupid not to sell the TVs for $100. Let’s say you can sell ten TVs for $100. That’s $1000 in TV revenues and $500 in costs, with a profit of $500. What if you could sell eight TVs for $200, with two fewer people buying TVs because they’re too expensive? That’s $1600 in revenues and $400 in costs, with a profit of $1200. It would be stupid not to raise the price to $200. But what about those two poor suckers who don’t have TVs anymore? Well, they’re just TVs so it’s no problem.

Health insurance operates in the same manner. Insurance companies are incentivised to charge higher and higher rates, up to the point where profit is maximized and any increase in price will cause companies or individuals purchasing the insurance to drop coverage at a loss to the insurer. But, unlike with TVs, not having an insurance policy means risking sickness, death or bankruptcy. This makes health insurance highly inelastic, in that a large increase in price will cause only a few people to drop coverage. Letting people die by forcing them to drop coverage because costs are too high is thus built into the private system.

Market Power
In a purely competitive economy, insurance companies would not be able to charge rates as high as that which would maximize profits, because other companies would charge cheaper rates. Going back to the TV example, imagine if your competitor sold similar TVs for $100. Lets say that if you charged $200, you could only sell 2 TVs with a profit of $300, which is less than the $500 you would make if you sold them for $100. It would make sense to buy your competitor out so that you can jack up the price to $200 and sell just as many TVs. Or, you could talk to your competitor, and agree to both sell the TVs for $200. Or, even better, you could buy the factory that sells the TVs to your competitor, make that company stop selling to the competitor, then jack up the prices and watch your competitor fizzle out. This is called gaining market power, (monopoly power if you are the only seller).

Most of the health industry is not competitive. There are a limited number of health providers, and they collude on prices. Healthcare companies gain market power in a way that is similar to the third example in the previous paragraph. The factory producing TVs is like a hospital providing health services. Insurance companies often own hospitals, or have exclusive agreements with hospital operators. They make sure no other insurance companies have access to those hospitals, or make agreements with other companies to charge the same prices for access to those hospitals.

Insurance companies will charge rates that are as high as they possibly can, and squeeze people out of coverage. In a recession, more people and businesses are forced to drop coverage because they don’t have jobs. Insurance companies raise rates to compensate for having fewer customers, because they know that the remaining customers will fork over more money for an essential service like health care.

Pre-existing conditions
Insurance companies are also disincentivised from providing coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions, the people who need health insurance the most. Think about it like a life insurance policy. Would you sell a policy for $100 a month that paid out $100,000 to someone who was likely going to die in 2 months? That would be stupid, since you know you would lose almost $100,000 on the deal. Similarly, health insurance companies would not provide coverage to someone who has suffered from cancer, since that person is likely to rack up a lot of medical bills if their cancer comes back. Health insurers are in the business of risk, and sick people present too high of a risk.

Society loses
The result of all of these issues is that society loses. Health care should not be a scarce commodity like TVs. It should be a universal commodity available to all. Anyone who disagrees with this thinks that people should die because they are poor. This is a viable argument that can be made: if you can’t afford health insurance, then you should die if you are sick. We live in a capitalist system, and people who haven’t figured out how to manipulate the system to maximize their financial gain should die. This argument is completely inhumane, and I can’t understand the thought process of those who make it.

Many would argue that under the current system, hospitals are forced to provide emergency coverage, and therefore the poor do get care. But, many are forced to go into bankruptcy because of this situation, which prevents them from having an equal opportunity to participate in the capitalist system. Further, there is more than emergency coverage necessary to have proper health care. What about diseases or operations? What about checkups that can prevent or catch sickness early? What about insane deductibles and denials of coverage for those who do have healthcare? Everyone should have a right to a basic level of health care. Lack of money should not be grounds for receiving the death penalty.

Why has nothing changed? A problem that has persisted due to the current system is widespread involvement of insurance companies in spending money to sway people to support their companies and the current system. Again, this is just a part of the system. If your company is making $1 billion a year in profit, it’s worth $100 million to pay someone to make sure that you keep making that profit if you only will make $500 million a year in profit if you don’t make the payment. It’s worth $400 million in savings to spend that $100 million.

There’s no point in blaming insurance companies for spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fight the public option by giving money to lawmakers and spending money on expensive advertisements to sway public opinion in their favour. They are private companies, and those funds are a worthwhile investment. After all, it works. As of the writing of this article, the insurance companies have almost completely squashed the public option as a legislative solution to the health care problem. But, in reality, the public option is the only solution.

Part II: The solution

The Band-Aid
Any solution without a public option is essentially a band-aid. The current solution being sent through the senate serves to force insurance companies to take losses on people with pre-existing conditions and the poor who can’t afford insurance. The government would have to subsidize those losses in some way shape or form. Prices will keep going up, and inevitably the taxpayer will have to pay. These band-aid solutions are just another way of funnelling taxpayer money to shareholders of insurance companies. The poor will likely receive inferior and inadequate coverage.

Medicare and Medicaid are essentially band-aid solutions. Health insurance is provided to seniors or the poor with billions of dollars of government handouts. Medicare costs continually increase because basic health care costs continually increase. These costs put a greater and greater burden on the taxpayer, and lead to trillions of dollars in government debt.

The Public Option
A public health insurance provider would have a different incentive system from a private corporation. Rather than maximizing profits to shareholders, a public insurer would want to minimize profits, or even take losses, so as to make sure the maximum number of people are able to get the best possible coverage. A public organization’s incentives are directed towards pleasing voters. Thus, the more happy voters, the more support for the organization. The more people that have coverage, the more happy voters.

The public option is like a competitor selling TVs for $50, or even $40. What are you going to do if your competitor is selling TVs for $40 that cost you $50 to produce? Well, you either go out of business or build a better TV that you can make money off of.

The public option would force insurance companies to sell better and cheaper plans that would compete with the public plan. The public plan would slowly swallow up the cheap and inefficient side of the health coverage market. Many employers would switch their coverage to the public option to cut costs. Private options would be a premium service offered by certain employers. They would be forced to compete with public providers.

This scenario would be better for America. Employers would be able to see more profits because they can save money on giving health care to their employees. All Americans would be covered, and not be forced into bankruptcy to survive sickness. Medical costs would go down because the government insurer would be able to bargain with medical providers to lower medical costs. Doctors will still be rich, just not as rich.

Many people are afraid of this scenario unfolding because they think it represents socialism. Perhaps a complete government takeover of healthcare, hospitals, and the destruction of private competition as exists in Canada and other countries would be socialistic. But just providing a government option that competes with the private options is no different from a public school system, or a public parcel delivery system. Private schools have to offer an education that is better than the public system can offer. The public system thus encourages better education for all.

Some things are best done by governments, who serve the best interests of society, not their shareholders. Coming from Canada, it is astounding for me to hear the hell that Americans go through just to get health care. When I needed health care in Canada, I went to the hospital or doctor, filled some paperwork out, and showed my government insurance card. That was it. No bills, no questions, no deductible. Nothing. Just health care. Which is not to say that the Canadian system is perfect, but it is much better than a system where poverty is a death sentence.

Health care should be a right ensured by the government, not a purchased commodity like TVs. Americans need to stop listening to the rhetoric presented by the insurance companies. These companies are fighting for their lives. Fortunately for them, the people in charge of making the decision to put a public option in place are corrupt and ignorant, and will shift their position in return for kickbacks that will get them re-elected.

The only way things will change is if American support for the public option increases, and the only way that will happen is if Americans get educated about the issue, and realize that the public option will make life better for everyone except the shareholders of insurance companies.

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