Woo hoo! ‘Shrooms and acid party at my house tonight!

We do not have a rational drug policy. There are potent and dangerous drugs that are socially accepted because hey, we’ve always drunk alcohol and smoked cigarettes, while there are milder, far less dangerous drugs that are damned because they’re new and unfamiliar. And so we throw people in prison for long jail terms if they are caught with some marijuana, while people can go out every weekend and drink themselves into an abusive, obnoxious state, and we just tell them they’re cool.

It is possible to take an objective look at the effects of various drugs on individuals and society, and ask “where’s the harm?” Here’s an example, the dangers of an array of drugs characterized and ranked.

There’s lots of small print there, so you may have to click to embiggen, but I can tell you what the extremes are: alcohol is the worst, and psychoactive mushrooms are the least. Heroin and meth are bad, LSD and Ecstasy are among the least dangerous.

And there are good biological reasons for this ranking.

The particular type of neurotransmitters that a drug affects in the brain has a huge impact on the harms the drug can contribute to. A major similarity between the drugs that tops the list above is that these drugs, in addition to other areas in the brain (click here for a discussion), directly affect the dopaminergic “reward system” in the midbrain. This area has been shaped and “designed” by millions of years of natural selection in mammals to reward for adaptive behavior such as sex and the intake of nutritious food. When they are artificially stimulated by drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine they have adverse consequences for addiction and health (that is the reason why drugs such as nicotine and heroin have the characteristic addictive effects). Drugs at the bottom of the list, such as MDMA (ecstasy), mushrooms and LSD stimulate mainly serotonergic neurons (several places in the brain), and does not directly stimulate the mesolimbic reward systems (which is why they are not addictive).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had laws and penalties that were actually informed by science, rather than fear and naivete?

I will add, though, that there’s more to this than just biology: there are the sciences of sociology and pyschology that have to be taken into account. We’ve done the experiment of trying to criminalize alcohol in the same way we do heroin; it didn’t work.

Depressing stories about income inequity

Jon Ronson has an interesting take on American economic disparities: He interviews 6 people, each one with 5 times the income of the previous one, going from an immigrant dishwasher to a billionaire.

Each story is worth reading, but the overall take is bizarre: all the people at the bottom of the ladder rationalize their position, saying that they wouldn’t want the worries of the next person up, while pitying the one below them. Except the guy at the top: he’s just angry at all those slackers below him. You can see how the system maintains itself, and why nobody is getting outraged at the tax disparities in this country.

I also learned that Jon Ronson, who’s open about his income, makes more money than I do. A lot more. Next time I meet him, I’m going to have to break the pattern and rage furiously at him and demand that he give me some of his cash. IT ISN’T FAIR, you rich bastard! It’s just not fair!

The Texas Republican Party platform for 2012

I heard about the Texas Republican Party platform on the Atheist Experience last night, and today Zinnia Jones has a post about it. Have you seen this thing? The Texas Freedom Network has a breakdown of its contents.

  • Declares separation of church and state is a “myth” and calls for Congress to withdraw federal court jurisdiction over cases involving religious freedom and the Bill of Rights

  • Calls for teaching creationist arguments in public school science classrooms

  • Opposes the sale and use of emergency contraception and backs the Legislature’s war on women’s health programs

  • Rejects “any sex education other than abstinence until marriage” in public schools

  • Adopts a radical position that would essentially bar abortion even in cases of rape, of incest or to save a woman’s life

  • Advocates for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, minimum wage laws and the Endangered Species Act as well as the abolishment of the Environmental Protection Agency

  • Attacks LGBT Texans as a threat to families and objects to laws that would protect them from job discrimination and hate crimes

  • Calls for further funding cuts for public schools following draconian cuts by lawmakers in 2011

  • Seeks to change the 14th Amendment to limit citizenship by birth only to those born to a U.S. citizen

  • Threatens federal judges with impeachment if they don’t toe the far right’s line in controversial court cases

It also says we should end the Social Security program, arm college students, requiring presidential candidates to submit a birth certificate, and a return to the gold standard.

You know, though, this is just the Texas Republican’s idea of a better nation. These party platforms at the state level are hammered out by the ideological extremists of the party; when it gets to the national level, the rough edges and spiky knifey bits will be smoothed out and puttied over by apparatchiks who know they have to win over a majority of the country, so most of this will go away or be buried in cryptic language and dog-whistles.

But the thing about these state platforms is that they expose the primal id of the party. I’ve been to local Democratic caucuses, for instance, and I see the extremists of that party at work — and also most of their ideas get pared away at the state and national level, too, smoothed out to a blander, more conservative muddle. You can see better where the party faithful want us to go, while the party leadership always steers a more middling course.

At the Democratic caucuses, you see people exposing the real dreams of their group. And at Democratic events, they want things like: free education for everyone; free healthcare for everyone; more open immigration policies and education and healthcare for immigrant children, legal or otherwise; an end to all wars; reduction of the defense budget; more support for labor unions; protection for endangered species; more environmental restoration; full civil rights for gay people; closing Guantanomo Bay; and just generally making the universe a friendlier place. They’ll also toss in some nonsense about organic herbal medicine or increasing subsidies for corn ethanol production, so they aren’t perfect, but one thing they are is idealistic.

Contrast that with what the dedicated Republicans propose. Sure, Democratic dreams are too often impractical, but they at least value human beings, every one of them, and want all of us to live safely and securely, with hope for personal improvement. The Republicans always sound so sour and stupid, dedicated to shutting down everyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male; it’s an “I got mine” attitude that seeks to influence the state to enhance their privileges.

This is why, even when we’re saddled with a moderate conservative jerk for a president, I have to hold my nose in November and pull the lever for the asshole with a (D) after his name. I don’t like him, I think he betrays our values at every turn, but I like the people of the Democratic party far more than I do the people of the Republican party. I’m not going to vote for Obama, ever; I’m going to vote for that guy at the Minnesota caucus who suggested that we cut the defense budget in half and spend the money on universal health care instead, and I’m going to vote against the guy in the Texas caucuses who thinks our most pressing concern is preventing gay couples from having a happy life.

Bravo, Germany!

I think this is an excellent decision.

In a decision that has caused outrage among Jewish and Muslim groups, the court said that a child’s right to physical integrity trumps religious and parental rights.

The case involved a doctor who carried out a circumcision on a four year-old that led to medical complications.

Thousands of Muslim and Jewish boys are circumcised in Germany every year.

Although male circumcision – unlike female circumcision – is not illegal in Germany, the court’s judgement said the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents".

Circumcision, it decided, contravenes "interests of the child to decide later in life on his religious beliefs".

The big question, though, is enforcement. It says male circumcision is not illegal, and that the ruling is not binding…so it seems rather meaningless, so far.But anything to get the knife a little farther away from babies and discourage a barbaric practice is progress.

Speaking of trolls: Ron Paul!

I’ve never understood the appeal of Ron Paul. I mean, I loved my crotchety nasty racist old Grandpa, but I also recognized his failings, and would never have voted for him for local garbage collector, let alone president. But once you strip away the filial affection and the personal history of good moments, which Ron Paul completely lacks, there’s nothing left but a hypocritical and bigoted elf with an incomprehensible libertarian agenda, so no, please, don’t put him in a position of any influence at all.

Wonkette has an excellent summary of Ron Paul’s contradictory and un-American positions. Read it, Paulites, and go away.

The Church Business

The Council for Secular Humanism has posted a most revealing analysis of church finances in the United States. It’s excellent — if only all our politicians would read and grasp it. Religion is a gigantic money pit.

First, the authors point out that the idea that churches deserve their money because they are non-profit charitable organizations is a myth. I wouldn’t donate money to an organization that was this wasteful.

Do religions engage in charitable work that addresses the physical needs of the poor? Many do, but that is not their primary focus. Religions are quick to trumpet when they do charitable work—ironically for Christians, since the Bible explicitly says not to (Mathew 6:2). But they don’t do as much charitable work as a lot of people think, and they spend a relatively small percentage of their overall revenue on such work. For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church), which regularly trumpets its charitable donations, gave about $1 billion to charitable causes between 1985 and 2008. That may seem like a lot until you divide it by the twenty-three-year time span and realize this church is donating only about 0.7 percent of its annual income. Other religions are more charitable. For instance, the United Methodist Church allocated about 29 percent of its revenues to charitable causes in 2010 (about $62 million of $214 million received). One calculation of the resources expended by 271 U.S. congregations found that, on average, “operating expenses” totaled 71 percent of all the expenditures of religions, much of that going to pay ministers’ salaries. Financial contributions addressing the physical needs of the poor fall within the remaining 29 percent of expenditures. While these numbers may be higher as a percentage of income than typical charitable giving by corporations, they are not hugely higher (depending on the religion) and are substantially lower in absolute terms. Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years.

They also point out that the churches are incredibly poorly regulated — which is probably one of the reasons they are so popular among grasping frauds. They do give out a few unfortunate ideas, though.

What this means is that donations to religions are largely unregulated. In our discussions while investigating the subsidies to religion, we realized that religions would be the ideal way to launder money if you were engaged in an illegal enterprise. Hypothetically, the leader of a drug cartel could have one of his lieutenants start a church and file for tax-exempt status. Once granted, money from the sale of drugs could then be donated to the religion, which could use the funds to build extravagant buildings (including a “parsonage”), host extravagant “services” (a.k.a. parties) for members of the religion, and pay extravagant salaries to its ministers (including the leader of the cartel). Drug money could be laundered through the church’s bank accounts with little risk of being caught by authorities. If drug cartels and the Mafia aren’t already doing this, we’d be surprised.

Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised, either. If you want to make money disappear, run it through a church — no one will ever question it or look deeper into it (except those damned atheists.)

But now, the big bottom line: exactly how much money is religion sucking out of our pockets for no purpose whatsoever?

More than $71 billion. To put that into context, the authors mention that US agricultural subsidies, which are huge, are about $180 billion.

They mention that if Florida, for instance had just revoked the property tax exemption for religions, it would have brought in a few billion dollars that would have prevented their recent major cuts in police and firefighting, and their slashing of the education budget.

Except, let’s get real here: removing the subsidies wouldn’t suddenly bring in piles of cash; instead, it would probably kill a lot of the parasitic churches.

If these subsidies were removed—though we have no basis for believing that they will be anytime soon—we wonder what the damage to religion would be. There is evidence that donations to religions are tied to taxes; as the tax benefit of donating goes up, so do donations and vice versa. In other words, it seems likely that the removal of these subsidies would result in a substantial decrease in the supply of religion in the United States. To what extent it would affect demand for religion is uncertain.

Let’s do the experiment and find out.