Sunday, June 29, 2008

The False Promise of Gun Control
...Alas, however well accepted, the conventional wisdom about guns and violence is mistaken. Guns don’t increase national rates of crime and violence—but the continued proliferation of gun-control laws almost certainly does. Current rates of crime and violence are a bit below the peaks of the late 1970s, but because of a slight oncoming bulge in the at-risk population of males aged fifteen to thirty-four, the crime rate will soon worsen. The rising generation of criminals will have no more difficulty than their elders did in obtaining the tools of their trade. Growing violence will lead to calls for laws still more severe. Each fresh round of legislation will be followed by renewed frustration.

Gun-control laws don’t work. What is worse, they act perversely. While legitimate users of firearms encounter intense regulation, scrutiny, and bureaucratic control, illicit markets easily adapt to whatever difficulties a free society throws in their way. Also, efforts to curtail the supply of firearms inflict collateral damage on freedom and privacy interests that have long been considered central to American public life. Thanks to the seemingly never-ending war on drugs and long experience attempting to suppress prostitution and pornography, we know a great deal about how illicit markets function and how costly to the public attempts to control them can be. It is essential that we make use of this experience in coming to grips with gun control. ...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Our Infantile Search for Heroic Leaders
o you find yourself staring at the television and pining for a good leader — a person who will rise and make the world right again? Do you long for a Mandela, a Churchill, a Gandhi? Then grow up. Our political debate — what passes for it — increasingly focuses on a search for an elusive Messianic leader who will show us the way. This is the opposite of rational politics.

This search for leaders is based on a desire to return to childhood — to snuggle into the political cot and close our eyes, knowing daddy is outside watching over us. The highest compliment we pay to a politician is to call him “father of the nation”. I feel this urge too. It is difficult and disturbing to try to figure out what is wrong in the world, and how to put it right. How much more tempting to simply snuffle out somebody who you think is good and decent and kind, elect them, and assume they will sort it all out....

Why Do People Vote? Genetic Variation In Political Participation
...“Although we are not the first to suggest a link between genes and political participation,” note the authors, “this study is the first attempt to test the idea empirically.” They do so by conducting three tests of the claim that part of the variation in political participation can be attributed to genetic factors.

The results suggest that individual genetic differences make up a large and significant portion of the variation in political participation, even after taking socialization and other environmental factors into account. They also suggest that, contrary to decades of conventional wisdom, family upbringing may have little or no effect on children’s future participatory behavior.

In conducting their study, the authors examine the turnout patterns of identical and non-identical twins—including 396 twins in Los Angeles County and 806 twins in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Their findings suggest that 53% of the variation in turnout can be accounted for by genetic effects in the former, with similar outcomes in the latter. Moreover, genetic-based differences extend to a broad class of acts of political participation, including donating to a campaign, contacting an official, running for office, and attending a rally. ...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Taking More Risks Because You Feel Safe
...Trying to fix problems that affect vast numbers of people has an intuitive appeal that politicians and policymakers find irresistible, but several warehouses of research studies show that intuition is often a poor guide to fixing systemic problems. While it seems like common sense to pump money into an economy that is pulling the bedcovers over its head, the problem with most social interventions is that they target not robots and machines but human beings -- who regularly respond to interventions in contrarian, paradoxical and unpredictable ways.

"How well does government do in helping the market to improve what it does?" asked Clifford Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution and the author of the 2006 book "Market Failure Versus Government Failure." "The research consistently finds that, in fact, government efforts to correct market failures have little effect, or actually make things worse."

"There is a tendency for people to say, 'If things are safer, then I will take more risk,' " he added....

Every Knee Shall Bow, Every Tongue Confess that the President “Is All That”
...In the 20th century, presidents — as well as candidates for that office from both parties — morphed into beings with a glory in their bosoms that transfigures you, me and the nation, or are at least have to affect being that to get votes. Such is the thesis of Gene Healy’s superb recent book, The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. Therein Healy documents how George W. Bush’s presidency may have taken the Executive-cum-monarch-cum-Christ phenomenon to its (for now) apogee, but there is plenty of blame to go around; excessive expectations and veneration leading to Executive power-mongering goes back at least to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the Progressive Era....

...“Progressives” need to examine their own forebears’ contributions to this evil. TR was a war-mongering member of their sect, declaring in 1897, as Healy notes: “In strict confidence, I should welcome almost any war, for this country needs one,” whereupon Teddy pushed for same and went off to lead the Rough Riders in the famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War....

Monday, June 23, 2008

Put oil firm chiefs on trial, says leading climate change scientist
James Hansen, one of the world's leading climate scientists, will today call for the chief executives of large fossil fuel companies to be put on trial for high crimes against humanity and nature, accusing them of actively spreading doubt about global warming in the same way that tobacco companies blurred the links between smoking and cancer.

Hansen will use the symbolically charged 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking speech (pdf) to the US Congress - in which he was among the first to sound the alarm over the reality of global warming - to argue that radical steps need to be taken immediately if the "perfect storm" of irreversible climate change is not to become inevitable.

Speaking before Congress again, he will accuse the chief executive officers of companies such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy of being fully aware of the disinformation about climate change they are spreading. ...

America's Berlin Wall
...Under the proposed legislation, expatriates surrendering their citizenship with a net worth of $2m or more, or a high income, will have to act as if they have sold all their worldwide assets at a fair market price. If the unrealised gains on these assets exceed $600,000, capital-gains tax will apply. A study by the Congressional Budget Office guesses that the new law will progressively net the government up to $286m over five years. It is unclear, however, why people would suffer the consequences if they did not expect to save money in the long run by escaping American taxes.

That expats want to leave at all is evidence of America's odd tax system. Along with citizens of North Korea and a few other countries, Americans are taxed based on their citizenship, rather than where they live. So they usually pay twice—to their host country and the Internal Revenue Service. As this makes citizenship less palatable, Congress has erected large barriers to stop them jumping ship. In 1996 it forced people who renounced citizenship to continue paying income taxes for an extra ten years. Theoretically, the new law allows for a cleaner break.

But even as the law tries to prevent people from renouncing their citizenship, it may have the opposite effect. Under the new structure, it would make financial sense for any young American working overseas with a promising career to renounce his citizenship as early as possible, before his assets accumulate. For everyone else, plunging stock and property prices mean now may be as good a time as any to hand back the passport, says Kurt Rademacher, a partner at Withers, a global tax-planning firm....

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Global War Deaths Have Been Substantially Underestimated, Study Shows
Globally, war has killed three times more people than previously estimated, and there is no evidence to support claims of a recent decline in war deaths, concludes a study published on the British Medical Journal website....

A FORMER minister at a top Presbyterian church who admitted seducing one of his married parishioners may have chased after other women, according to court papers. A decision made public yesterday said officials at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church were told that the Rev. Thomas Tewell, 56, who counseled troubled spouses, "was preying on other women to whom he was providing marital counseling."...

Parishioner Sues Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Saying Pastor Seduced Wife
A jilted Long Island husband is suing his pastor, the Presbytery of New York City and one of its largest churches, saying that the pastor seduced his wife and destroyed his "faith and trust" in the church and in the institution of marriage.

The husband, Joseph Vione, 43, who had been living in Garden City, says in papers filed last week in State Supreme Court in Manhattan that the Rev. Thomas K. Tewell, 56, the senior pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Midtown Manhattan, used confidential information obtained during marriage counseling to seduce Mr. Vione's wife, Rachel, 42. Mr. Vione has filed for divorce.

To cover his tracks and to further his relationship with Ms. Vione, court papers say, Dr. Tewell encouraged the couple to join couples clubs and family ministries and attend marriage retreats that he presided over.

The suit also says that officials of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which has nearly 4,000 members, knew of allegations from anonymous parishioners that Dr. Tewell had exploited his position at the church "to prey on" other women by engaging in illicit relationships with them, but did not investigate....

Wall Street Lobbies to Protect Speculative Oil Trades
...In a pair of lengthy and sometimes testy closed-door sessions in the Senate last week, executives from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of Wall Street's largest investment banks, made the case that their multibillion-dollar investments in energy contracts have not led to higher oil prices. Rather, they told Democratic staff members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the trades allow international markets to operate efficiently and that the run-up in oil prices results not from speculation but from actual imbalances of supply and demand.

But the executives were met with skepticism and occasional hostility. "Spare us your lecture about supply and demand," one of the Democratic aides said, abruptly cutting off one of the executives, according to a staff member in the room.

Another aide at the meetings warned the executives that no matter what arguments they muster, it would be hard to prevent Congress from acting....

Bibb Co. Minister Arrested in Child Rape case
Timothy Fulgham, 40, is charged with second-degree rape, second-degree sodomy, second-degree sexual abuse and enticing a child for immoral purposes....

...“Just believing that the truth will be revealed, and we believe in the system; we just don’t talk about it here. It’s not really relevant to us. The former pastor resigned. I just want to let everyone know in our community that our church is a great place to be. It’s a safe place to be,” said Brandon Morrison, current pastor of the River Life Church of God....

Fort Worth pastor arrested on child sex charge
FORT WORTH, Texas — A pastor has been arrested on accusations that he sexually assaulted a teen girl who attends his church....

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why We’re Going to Win on Global Warming
...As far as I can see, proponents of emissions reductions will respond with four arguments: (1) inflate the analyzed costs of global warming by claiming the science actually now says things will be even worse than we previously thought, (2) inflate the analyzed costs of global warming by embedding indefensible discount rate assumptions in the black box of econometric calculations used by economists to conduct the cost-benefit analysis, (3) deflate the analyzed costs of emissions mitigation by claiming a free lunch – that there is a cost-free or low-cost way to radically reduce emissions, and/or (4) turn this into a moral crusade asserting that we have a moral duty to the poor of the world because of our past sins of emission. I have laid out responses to each of these objections: 1, 2, 3 and 4. When considered carefully, emissions mitigation proponents have no persuasive arguments....

The cops came, searched and left a mess for puzzled homeowner
Four young residents of a North Philadelphia house who circulated petitions questioning police-surveillance cameras were rousted from their home Friday and detained 12 hours without charges while police searched their house.

Daniel Moffat, 28, a co-owner of the house, said police had no warrant when they entered. The house was examined by officials from several government agencies and then shuttered by the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.

"This leaves me homeless, without access to things I need. My whole life is disrupted," Moffat said yesterday.

The raid on the property on Ridge Avenue near Parrish Street was led by 9th District Police Capt. Dennis Wilson, who was quoted in an online story by the City Paper as saying of the residents: "They're a hate group. We're trying to drum up charges against them, but unfortunately we'll probably have to let them go."...

Report: Exams prove abuse, torture in Iraq, Gitmo
WASHINGTON - Medical examinations of former terrorism suspects held by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, found evidence of torture and other abuse that resulted in serious injuries and mental disorders, according to a human rights group.

For the most extensive medical study of former U.S. detainees published so far, Physicians for Human Rights had doctors and mental health professionals examine 11 former prisoners. The group alleges finding evidence of U.S. torture and war crimes and accuses U.S. military health professionals of allowing the abuse of detainees, denying them medical care and providing confidential medical information to interrogators that they then exploited....

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Routine" Abuse At Bagram
Those who have cared enough to keep tabs on what the Bush administration has unleashed in terms of treatment of prisoners in the war on terror will not be surprised at the latest report from McClatchy on Bagram in Afghanistan. And the denialists - who include almost the entire GOP blogosphere - will simply turn the page. But the shame endures...

The Shame Of Gitmo
An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men — and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds — whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments. McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials — primarily in Afghanistan — and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the detention program. The investigation also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents and other records. This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals.

At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. ...

Benedict, John Paul II, And Child Abuse
...The abuse-case that caused the Pope to lose his temper - to the point of a prissy smack - was Father Marcial Maciel. Until his death earlier this year, Maciel ran a large, far-right Catholic cult called the Legionaries of Christ. The Legionaries and their lay counterpart, Regnum Christi, are very powerful entities in the new Catholicism, given special protection by Pope John Paul II and much favor under his successor. And at the core of the Legionaries, like many religious cults, was a sexual abuse ring designed to please the founder. Secrecy was maintained by indoctrinating many members at a young age, and enforcing vows of silence on all topics related to Maciel. This cult-like stricture is still causing grief and suspicion in many parts of the Catholic world, most recently in the Baltimore archdiocese.

The reason I bring this up today is because journalist Jason Berry, of the Hartford Courant, has a new and gripping documentary on Maciel and the abusive cult-like practices he pioneered. It's called "Vows Of Silence" and it carefully exposes the appalling facts of the enmeshment of the last two Popes in covering up sexual abuse and protecting a serial predator. ...

The Equal Sharing of Misery
Under current National Health Service (NHS) regulations, if a patient chooses to purchase expensive drug treatments not covered by the government, they forfeit the right to further state-funded treatment. Allowing citizens to purchase life-extending drugs not covered by the NHS would create, says Labour Health Minister Alan Johnson, a two-tiered system favoring the wealthy. Of course, Mr. Johnson's is demanding equality of grim outcomes and preventing patients from spending their after-tax income however they see fit. This would be less of a problem if the NHS actually had the money to cover £2,200 a month cancer drugs. The (London) Times fills in the details...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mother Jones Agrees: The Fourth Great Awakening is Dead
...Perhaps the best evidence that the evangelical phase of the Fourth Great Awakening is winding down is that large numbers of young Americans are falling away from organized religion, just as the country did in the period between the first two awakenings. In the 1970s, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that between 5 percent and 7 percent of the public declared they were not religiously affiliated. By 2006 that figure had risen to 17 percent. The trend is especially apparent among younger Americans: In 2006 nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans in their 20s and almost as many (19 percent) of those in their 30s said they were nonaffiliated.

The Barna Group finds that only 60 percent of 16-to-29-year-olds identify themselves as Christians. By contrast, 77 percent of Americans over age 60 call themselves Christian. That is “a momentous shift,” the firm’s president told the Ventura County Star. “Each generation is becoming increasingly secular.”...

Southern Baptists fret over decline as annual meeting begins
For most of four decades, Southern Baptists could boast of rising membership even as more moderate and liberal Protestant denominations lost members in droves.

But with membership slightly down last year, and flat for the past five, Southern Baptists face a growing anxiety about their future as they gather for their annual meeting Tuesday in Indianapolis.

"We have peaked," Southern Baptist statistician Ed Stetzer wrote in an online commentary on the latest statistics from 2007. "...For now, Southern Baptists are a denomination in decline."

What worries Southern Baptist leaders even more than the membership numbers is a steady decline in the conversion ritual that gave their denomination its name — baptisms.

Annual rates of baptisms have steadily declined not only in recent years, but also during the past 35 years. In 2007, Southern Baptist churches reported 345,941 baptisms. That's down 12% from 2002 and 22% from 1972....

The Myth of the Moral Majority
...Take that 40 percent church attendance stat. Looking around her half-empty Southern Baptist church outside Dallas, Christine Wicker had her doubts. Wicker, a veteran Texas newspaper reporter, was born again when she was nine but drifted away from her evangelical roots in adulthood. A few years ago, she returned to the Southern Baptist Church to both renew her faith and write The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, an insider's look at evangelicals' power, wading in where secular journalists feared to tread. When she started looking into the numbers on church attendance, she found that researchers could vouch for only 18 percent of Americans being regular churchgoers—less than half the accepted figure. That led her to wonder about the already widely reported claim that 25 percent of Americans are evangelicals; could the real number also be less than half that?

In size, only the Catholic Church dwarfs the Southern Baptist Church, the biggest evangelical denomination and by far the most organized and fastidious of the Protestant record keepers. But Wicker discovered that the numbers the Southern Baptist Convention (sbc) releases for public consumption tell a much different story than the ones it uses internally. The organization claims 16 million members, but as one reverend cracks, "the fbi couldn't find half of [them] if they had to." A 2006 sbc report states that only 11 million of its members live in the same area as their home church anymore; that number includes those who've been double- or even triple-counted elsewhere. It also includes perennial no-shows and those who attend services at "bedside Baptist" (they sleep in on Sunday but show up for Easter and Christmas). And that's not to mention those who've lost their religion or converted to another faith. If their names were ever on "the roll" at a Baptist church, they're probably inscribed there for life....