Crime and guns (part 2 of 2)

(See part 1 here.)

Opponents of personal gun ownership worry that easy access to guns may cause needless death and injury in situations which otherwise might end peacefully. We have all heard horror stories where children have accidentally killed people because they stumbled upon firearms left unattended. We worry that people in drunken states or people prone to violent rages may use guns in deadly ways. We also fear that this would increase the risk of armed crimes.

People also fear that carrying guns around might cause people to respond more aggressively than otherwise to the minor slights and annoyances of everyday life, like the person who cuts you off in traffic, or gives you the finger, or for any of the many minor aggravations that are a part of life. We fear that having a gun might cause people to channel their inner Travis Bickle, saying, “You talkin’ to me?” before unleashing a fusillade of shots, or that a fender-bender might escalate into the gunfight at the OK Corral.

How realistic are these fears? Not very, says Dan Baum in his article Happiness is a worn gun in the August 2010 issue of Harper’s magazine (subscription required, I think). He says that the data does not seem to support most of those fears. He also says that carrying a concealed weapon gave him a heightened sense of awareness about his surroundings and a sense of security that actually made him react more calmly when challenged, like when two men yelled a slur at him on the street. He just walked away with a ‘Zen-like calm’, with less anger and tension than he would have had when he was unarmed because he knew he had a gun and thus felt less put upon and more in control of the situation. He had the inner confidence that comes from knowing he could have handled the two men if things had turned ugly.

Rage wasn’t an option, because I had no way of knowing where it would end, and somehow my brain and body sensed that. I began to understand why we don’t hear a lot of stories about legal gun carriers killing one another in road-rage incidents. Carrying a gun gives you a sense of guardianship, even a kind of moral superiority. You are the vigilant one, the sheepdog watching the flock, the coiled wrath of God. To snatch out your gun and wave it around would not only invite catastrophe but also sacrifice that righteous high ground and embarrass you in the worst possible way.

He also points that an armed citizenry might be of real help in many situations. Most people think that the police will protect them from crime but in reality police are nowhere around when crimes are committed (unless you are dealing with really stupid criminals who act in the presence of police) and usually arrive long after the fact, whereas your fellow citizens are all around you and may be able to rescue you from crime or violence.

It is feared that the mere possession of guns will make people into vigilantes, seeking out crime so that they can enact their Dirty Harry fantasies, waving a huge gun and saying to some hoodlum “You feel lucky, punk?” But is this true? Baum writes:

But shall-issue [i.e., laws that made gun ownership much easier by requiring authorities to issue any adult a carry permit unless there is good reason to deny it-MS] didn’t lead to more crime, as predicted by its critics. The portion of all killing done with a handgun—the weapon people carry concealed—hasn’t changed in decades; it’s still about half. Whereas the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., can produce a list of 175 killings committed by carry-permit holders since 2007, the NRA can brandish a longer list of crimes prevented by armed citizens. I prefer to rely on the FBI’s data, which show that not only are bad-guy murders—those committed in the course of rape, robbery, and other felonies—way down but so are spur-of-the-moment murders involving alcohol, drugs, romantic entanglements, money disputes, and other arguments: the very types of murders that critics worried widespread concealed-carry would increase.

It is true that the US has extraordinarily high levels of violence and violent crime involving guns whereas countries like Canada and those in Western Europe (where gun ownership is highly restricted) have much lower rates. But how much of this is due to easier ownership of guns and how much is due to other factors? Are Americans just historically and culturally more prone to settling conflicts using violence and would find other ways to harm others if they did not have guns? As jpmeyer points out in a comment to yesterday’s post, even within America there is huge variability with respect to crime and violence that (at least superficially) seems to show little correlation with gun control laws. Since guns can always be obtained by anyone in any country determined enough to do so, doesn’t restricting its availability simply deny access to those who would use it in a responsible manner?

Gun ownership is a tricky question that inexplicably arouses a lot of passion. Like global warming, it is not an issue that has moral or religious overtones (like god and gays and abortion) so it is surprising that people get so worked up about it. It really should be one of those questions that could and should be discussed on a very clinical and empirical basis, involving questions such as: What does the data tell us about the effect of widespread ownership of guns? What is the impact of allowing people to carry them either concealed or openly? What does widespread ownership of guns have on the level of violence and crime and death and injury?

Baum says that after going around for some time carrying a gun both openly and concealed, he will stop doing so because it is “uncomfortable, distracting, and freaks out my friends; it’s not worth it… If I lived in a dangerous place, I might feel different, and I may continue wearing a gun when I travel to such places (at least to the ones that allow it).”

In an interesting aside, Baum says that “Young adults buy markedly fewer guns than older people. They want to be urban and digital, and guns are the opposite of that. A big push by the industry to feminize the shooting sports has fallen flat; only in hunting has women’s participation increased, and even there just by a little.”

So ultimately the issue may simply be decided by changing demographics and social trends. Guns may come to be seen as uncool as smoking cigarettes and John Wayne may go the way of the Marlboro Man.

POST SCRIPT: Will Wall Street win again?

In the wake of the financial scandals, a new agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been set up to protect ordinary citizens. Elizabeth Warren would be the natural choice to head it since she has been a key mover of the idea and has shown herself to be a smart and fearless fighter. (For Warren’s appearances on The Daily Show, see here.)

Naturally, this makes her disliked by the banks and credit card companies and they are exerting pressure on the White House and Congress to scuttle her nomination. The Democrats know that if they overlook her, their progressive supporters will see this as yet another gross betrayal and capitulation to their Wall Street overlords.

Funny or Die reads Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s secret thoughts on Warren.

Crime and guns (part 1 of 2)

In American politics, strangely enough what gets people really fired up are not the major issues of the economy or wars but the three g’s: guns, god, and gays. (Also abortion, but it ruins the alliteration.) The split on this issue is pretty much along ideological lines. Self-described conservatives tend to oppose almost any restrictions on the ownership and carrying of firearms while self-described liberals see unrestricted ownership as an invitation to increased crime and violence.

The latest issue of Harper’s magazine had an interesting article (subscription required) titled Happiness is a worn gun by Dan Baum about the recent trends around the country that allow people to more easily own and carry handguns, either openly or concealed. Baum has owned and used guns a long time but just recently tried out what it was like to carry a gun around on his person, either concealed or openly, in those places where it was legal to do so. He estimates that around 6 million American routinely carry guns on their person.

I agree with Baum when he says:

To the unfamiliar, guns are noisy and intimidating. They represent the supremacy of force over reason, of ferocity over refinement, and probably a whole set of principles that rub some people the wrong way. But a free society doesn’t make people give a reason for doing the things they want to do; the burden of proof falls on those who would forbid. I started out thinking widespread concealed-carry was a bad idea. But in the absence of evidence that allowing law-abiding citizens to carry guns is harmful, I come down on the side of letting people do what they want.

I am not fearful of people owning guns. I am not a supporter of an outright bans on guns and support the Second Amendment. I can see where having an armed public can be beneficial in some situations and can also be a deterrence against a tyrannical government. This stance puts me at odds with almost all of my family, friends, and the people I move around with in the normal course of my life, who are shocked at my views whenever the topic comes up.

Where I disagree with the extreme pro-gun groups like the NRA is in their desire to view even reasonable restrictions on gun possession as evil. I can see the need to make sure that people who buy guns are screened in some way to weed out criminals and the mentally ill and that they be required to undergo firearms training to show that they know how to handle them. The right to own a gun should be treated like the right to drive a car. Just as we are willing to give ordinary people the right to drive vehicles (which can be lethal weapons) provided that have shown that they have had training in how to use it and handle it responsibly, so it should be with guns.

As Baum says,

We may all benefit from having a lot of licensed people carrying guns, if only because of the heightened state of awareness in which they live. It’s a scandal, though, that people can get a license to carry on the basis of a three-hour “course” given at a gun show. State requirements vary, but some don’t even ask students to fire a weapon before getting a carry permit. We should enforce high standards for instruction, including extensive live firing, role playing, and serious examination of the legal issues.

Baum lists five reasons that people give for opposing handgun ownership: “you think it so unlikely you’ll be attacked it’s not worth the trouble or the sacrifice of Condition White; you expect the police to come to your aid in the event of trouble; wearing a gun makes you feel less safe instead of more; you’ve decided you couldn’t take a life under any circumstance; or you don’t want to contribute to a coarsening of society by preparing to kill at a moment’s notice.”

(Baum says that the gun advocates have a color-coded system for the level of alertness. “Condition White is total oblivion to one’s surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod. Condition Yellow is being aware of, and taking an interest in, one’s surroundings—essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving: keeping our eyes moving, checking the mirrors, being careful not to let the radio drown out the sounds around us. Condition Orange is being aware of a possible threat. Condition Red is responding to danger.” Baum said that whenever he carried a gun, he always found himself in Condition Yellow. He ultimately gave up carrying a gun because he found that he enjoyed being in Condition White, where you can get lost in your own thoughts.)

I personally will not choose to carry a gun myself, mainly because I am not sure that I have what it takes to actually kill another human being, though one never knows what one might do in extreme situations where one’s own life or the life of a loved one is threatened. Carrying a gun and not being able or willing to use it lethally seems worse than not carrying one at all. Another reason is that I hate carrying unnecessary stuff around on my person. After being nagged by my family, I now carry a cell phone for them to contact me in an emergency but only they know the number and so I never get any calls on it (since I can usually be reached by them at home or at work) nor do I make any since I hate talking on the phone anyway. Carrying in my pocket every day something I never use irritates me but I do it to accommodate the family. A gun would be bulkier and the chances are almost zero that it would be ever used so why carry one around all the time?

(To be concluded tomorrw.)

POST STRONG: If only Eve had had a sassy gay friend…

A comedy cliché is the sassy but sensible gay friend who saves the heroine from doing something foolish. Actor Brian Gallivan has made it into his signature character.

The sassy gay friend rescues other famous fictional characters like Desdemona, Ophelia, and Juliet.

You can read an interview with Gallivan here about how he arrived at this series.

Crime and punishment

Studies “indicate that across a wide spectrum of the population and independent of local crime rates, viewing local television news is related to increased fear of and concern about crime.” That is consistent with my personal experience. I hardly ever watch TV and definitely not the local TV news. As a result, I tend to be less fearful of crime than those who watch the steady diet of fear-mongering that local news channels depend upon in order to get ratings.

I also live in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood in a middle class community with people walking their dogs and children playing on the sidewalks, and all these feed into the impression that one is living in a crime-free area.

But I recently started subscribing to the local weekly paper that reports the news in about four or five small suburbs including the one I live in. The items mostly consist of local community events and people, city council and school board meetings, and the inevitable zoning controversies of which at least one involves the proposed construction of a McDonalds to which the neighbors object. There is something about a proposed McDonalds that galvanizes opposition in middle-class neighborhoods.

But there is also one curiously fascinating feature that consists of the police blotter that lists all the crimes reported and I must say that reading it changes one’s perception of the neighborhood, reminding one that there is petty crime all around. And when I say petty, I do mean petty. Most of them deal with stolen bicycles left unattended, people entering unlocked garages and homes and stealing small items, minor altercations, and domestic violence.

There was one item that jumped out at me and that was the arrest of a man for stealing a toothbrush. I can’t get that terse one-sentence story out of my mind because it raises so many questions. What would lead someone to steal such a cheap item as a toothbrush? Was it someone who had recently fallen down on his luck but still valued personal hygiene? There seemed to be something poignant about someone who would risk arrest just to get a toothbrush. Or was the ‘thief’ (the word sounds jarringly strong for someone committing such a petty action) a kleptomaniac? Or was it an adolescent who could easily afford to buy it but wanted to steal it as a lark or a dare?

If the theft was out of genuine need, why would the drugstore (which is where presumably the attempted theft occurred) be so hard-hearted as to report such a person to the police? Surely you would give a person so desperate to maintain personal hygiene a chance and perhaps even a toothbrush free of charge? If it was a stupid childish prank, surely a strong warning would have been sufficient?

Another blotter item spoke of the arrest of a person for stealing a 12-oz can of beer. Again, the pettiness of the crime causes one to raise one’s eyebrows and wonder about the story behind the story.

There is often a class element involved in determining whether a petty crime gets reported to the police or not. I recall that when I was in high school in Sri Lanka a couple of boys from my school were caught stealing books from a store down the street. These boys were from well-to-do families who clearly did not need to steal and were presumably doing it for kicks or on a dare or for one of the many other reasons that make young boys act stupidly. Because their families were influential, the matter was hushed up and the boys quietly allowed to transfer to another school. But a little later two classmates and friends of mine who were not members of elite families got caught stealing books from the same store, confirming that young boys are incorrigibly stupid. But in their case, they were immediately expelled with all the shame that accompanies such an outcome, and their case was publicized and made into a stern lesson for us all on the evil of stealing.

There is no doubt that I benefit from the class bias of society in that my honesty is taken for granted for reasons that have nothing to do with knowledge of my personal character. Once at the grocery store I forgot to take the items on the bottom rack of the shopping cart out and place it on the counter for checking out and so they were not rung up. I discovered this only later after paying my bill and heading out the store. When I discovered my error I of course told the cashier and we all laughed at my forgetfulness. I suspect that if I had actually wheeled the cart out of the store without noticing my error, I still would not have been arrested for theft because my age and my ethnicity and my ‘respectable’ demeanor (at least I think I look respectable) would have protected me. It would have been treated as the honest mistake it was. But others who have the ‘wrong’ profile will not be so fortunate and will not be given the benefit of the doubt.

I recall once a conference presentation in a hotel meeting room that I made together with my African-American female colleague. After our session, we cleared up and took our stuff out to make room for the next presenters. I picked up what I thought was my colleague’s expensive-looking coat (she is always well dressed) but it was only later after relaxing in the lobby and getting ready to go home that she said that the coat did not belong to her and I realized that it must belong to the people who had been setting up after us. Her boyfriend was also present and he started to take the coat back to the room to return it, but then stopped and asked if I could do it because he said that it would be awkward for him to do so as people ‘might not understand’. The problem was as clear as it was unspoken. It did not matter that he is a very distinguished-looking and impeccably dressed man who could easily be mistaken for an ambassador or college president, while I was my usual nondescript self. The basic fact was that he is black and I am not, and that made all the difference in whether we would be presumed guilty or innocent of theft.

Most of us are unaware of the class and race privileges we enjoy and assume that it has been eradicated until we are directly confronted with it.

POST SCRIPT: Girl raised from birth by Wolf Blitzer

From The Onion News Network.

Girl Raised From Birth By Wolf Blitzer Taken Into Protective Custody

The origin of religion-9: Real and fictive kinship

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the strategies that religions use to both grow and retain their members. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion suggest that the growth of religion could have been aided by the idea of ‘fictive kinship’. To understand this, we need to bear in mind that what evolution selects for are individual genes, not the full organism. The full organism (a human or chimpanzee or bird or plant) is simply a vehicle for carrying and reproducing genes.

The early research of W. D. Hamilton and R. Trivers showed how it can be evolutionary advantageous for a gene for the organism that contains it to nurture, protect, and even sacrifice itself for a relative because of its shared genes, and that this could form the basis for what we call altruism. As the mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane replied when asked if he would give his life to save his drowning brother, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins”, which reflects when the number of his own genes that he loses by dying breaks even with the ones he saves in others.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57, and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27, 1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a clear summary of the research on how evolution can provide an explanation of the biological basis of altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

This drive to perpetuate a gene by aiding the survival and reproductive success of those who share that same gene, our ‘kin’, is evolutionarily advantageous and is thus likely deeply embedded in our primal brain.

Farmers know this and take advantage of this altruism towards actual kin by tricking animals into creating a false sense of genetic connection, a ‘fictive kinship’, in order to make an animal help another not related to it. For example, sheep and lambs can die during the birthing process and although it would help the farmer if an ewe that had lost its own lamb allowed an orphaned lamb to suckle it, ewes are reluctant to allow a lamb not its own to do so. This is understandable behavior in Darwinian terms because the ewe’s genes do not benefit from spending its resources on an unrelated animal. But by skinning the dead lamb of an ewe and using it to cover the body of a lamb whose mother has died, the ewe can be fooled into thinking that the lamb is her own and allow it to suckle.

Cornwell and Thomson suggest that the perpetuation and growth of religion is aided by this idea of fictive kinship. In primitive societies, we recognized as kin those who lived with us or very close to us. As societies grew larger and more complex, other devices had to be created to keep track of who was kin and who was not. Family names were one such device but in even larger groups we find ways to trick people into thinking in terms of kin by using labels such as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, ‘fatherland’ and ‘motherland’, and so on. These terms are targeted to appeal to the primal brain that has evolved to instinctively rally to help kin, and are exploited by armies and religions and politicians in order to get people to band together as fictive families to fight against other fictive families.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, exploits the fictive kinship aspects extensively. It speaks of ‘god the father’ and ‘Mother Mary’, their priests are referred to as father or brother, their nuns as sister or mother, and the liturgy constantly invokes the idea of the congregants as brothers and sisters.

Another explanation for the origin of religion is the idea that belief in an afterlife is a precursor to belief in god. This view suggests that in primitive societies, older adults may have found it advantageous to themselves to initiate and propagate the idea that there is an afterlife in which they still wielded influence over events in this life. It enabled them to command respect and good treatment from the young in this life even when they were old and decrepit and of little practical use. It is not a big step from believing in a world of the afterlife to believe in some sort of hierarchy existing there, with the ruler of that after-world transmuting into a god-concept.

It is unlikely that we will definitively answer questions about the origins of religion since those events lie in deep evolutionary time and beliefs don’t leave fossil remains or their imprint in DNA.

Those of us who wonder why religions still exist in the face of modern understanding of how the world works tend to underestimate the determination of believers to hold on to their beliefs. A Pew poll finds that while the public may say that they respect and understand science, “much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.”

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that “recent discoveries and advances” in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers. (my italics)

But whether we treat religion as a mental illness (as argued by Albert Ellis) or understand its origins and presence in any number of other ways, we clearly have our work cut out in trying to expose it because of its deep evolutionary origins that can make people choose to believe in illusions over reality.

But the big weakness of religion, the one that works against it and will ultimately lead to its demise, is that it is a false belief with zero evidentiary support and such beliefs, however strongly held, eventually crumble.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to discredit science to preserve religion

Following up on the above Pew poll, you can see the comical lengths that religious people will go to in their attempt to show that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Incidentally, the creationist Kent Hovind (aka ‘Dr. Dino’) who is featured in the video is now serving a ten year prison sentence for tax fraud.

The origin of religion-8: Religious observance as obsessive-compulsive behavior

In the previous post in this series, I discussed neurologist Robert Sapolsky’s theory that the charismatic founders of religious cults had schizotypal personalities. He then goes further and tries to identify what traits might be at work amongst the followers of religion. What is it that makes them adopt ritualistic practices that serve no useful purpose? He suggests that the conscientious observance of time-wasting rituals that characterize devout followers of religions is a milder manifestation of what we now call obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD).

There’s a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

You could look at any of these organized religions — though we’re very accustomed by now that, when we think of religion, it’s often interspersed with good works or a sense of community — and see that religion in its orthodoxy is about rules: how you do every single thing all throughout the day. You look at orthodox versions of any of these religions, and there are rules for which direction you face after you defecate, which hand you wash, how many swallowings of water, which nostril you breathe in with, which nostril you breathe out — these are all rules that Brahmans have in order to get into heaven. Numerological rules: how many times you have to say a certain prayer in a lifetime.

Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: every day there’s a bunch of strictures of things you’re supposed to do, a bunch you’re not supposed to do, and the number you’re supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you’re not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others’ eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.

Then, obviously getting closer to home for most people here, there is the realm of the number of rosaries and the number of Hail Mary’s. Religious ritualism is shot through with the exact same obsessive qualities.

Once again, these rules are time wasting and maladaptive for most people. But not for all, because if so they would have disappeared over time. They work to the benefit of those who make the rules. Sapolsky suggests that religious rituals originate with people who have OCD-type symptoms because it provides them with a livelihood. The rabbis and imams whose job is to perform the rituals that ensure that animals are slaughtered correctly, the priests who hear confessions and conduct services, the pope, are all people would have to get real jobs if there weren’t these structures that provided a perfect match, a socially approved outlet, that allows them to benefit from what is essentially a disability. As Sapolsky says, “Outside of the realm of religion, OCD destroys people’s lives. It is incompatible with functioning. Not only can you function with those rituals in the religious context: you can make a living doing it. People make a living doing rituals ritualistically in the context of religion.”

So according to Sapolsky, schizotypals are the kinds of people who originate religions and people with OCDs make up the ritualistic rules that surround them and are its most ardent followers, who form the core fundamentalists who take the magical claims of the originators literally.

But protecting them and their beliefs are those with milder versions of this trait, the average person in the church, synagogue, mosque, and temple who are more modernist believers who kinda-sorta believe and kinda-sorta obey the rituals but not ‘religiously’. (It is interesting that the metaphor of doing something religiously is used to characterize someone who never fails to perform a specific action at the requisite time and place.) Such people construct a protective belt of metaphor and obfuscating language to create the illusion that the beliefs make sense and that the rituals have a rational basis. They deflect attention away from the fact that at it core, the beliefs are factually false and unsupportable. The need for the existence of this group to allow religion to flourish ties in with the computer modeling work of James Dow that I wrote about earlier in this series.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

So perhaps the schizotypal personalities of Jesus and Mohammed and other cult leaders have features that attract even non-believers (many atheists have nice things to say about Jesus and Buddha as persons, Mohammed and Joseph Smith not so much), and this is sufficient to give the unreal message they propagate survival value.

People constantly ask why we new/unapologetic atheists argue against all religion and not just ‘bad’ religion consisting of the extremists, the fundamentalists, and the blatantly crazy and murderous. In this passage from an audio clip that I linked to recently, comedian Marcus Brigstocke explains why he thinks all religion is bad. After listing the crazy things that religious extremists do, he says:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they’ll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away. (my italics)

I am not sure if Brigstocke is familiar with the work of Sapolsky, Dow, and others about the neurological bases of religious leaders and their followers, but his words do seem to be perfectly consistent with it.

We will not be able to get rid of religious extremists as long as ‘moderate’ religion continues to exist.

Next: Strategies used by religions to grow.

POST SCRIPT: Marcus Brigstocke on living according to the Bible

The phony social security crisis-7: Who are the hard workers?

As I said in the previous post in this series, the elites who work in comfortable conditions in well-paying jobs have no idea of what work is like for the vast majority of people. And they live in this cocooned world where the media feeds their inflated sense of self-worth. The ever-oblivious New York Times columnist David Brooks is one of those people who serves the needs of such people, someone who can say with no sense of irony: “I was going to say that for the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?”

The rich are more industrious? How clueless can you get? Does he have any idea how hard manual laborers like farm and construction workers or waiters work, on their feet, each and every day? I’ll let Matt Taibbi dissect him:

I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon. [Dimon is CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase whom economist Simon Johnson calls the most dangerous man in America for the harmful effect he has on the economy-MS]

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.

Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.

Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he’s wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn’t really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall.

If I had to do even five hours of that work today I’d bawl my f—— eyes out for a month straight. I’m not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress.

What is even more annoying is when well-to-do people express annoyance when they discover that people doing what they consider low-skilled and demeaning jobs (like sanitation workers) may sometimes earn enough wages to provide a modestly comfortable life for their families and even take vacations or drive a reasonably nice car. They seem to think that a job that requires low entry-level skills should always pay poorly. When people say such things in my presence, my response is always to tell them that if they think those people have got such a great deal, whether they would consider giving up their current jobs and in exchange for those, or at least encourage their children to seek those jobs. Of course, the thought had never even crossed their minds.

What is perfectly understood but left unsaid by the oligarchy is that if all jobs, however menial, paid a decent wage, then the cost of things would rise and the rest of us would have to pay more for clothes, food, and other services, leaving the rich with slightly less disposable income for restaurant meals, and hotels, and to pay for tee-times at their country clubs. As Voltaire said, “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.”

The attempt by the oligarchy to get their hands on the social security trust fund is spearheaded by people who have consistently lied about its viability. The reality is that the founders of the social security program back in 1935 were not stupid or innumerate but were mathematically savvy people who anticipated most of the demographic changes that subsequently occurred (including the likelihood of increased lifespan) and took them into account in their actuarial planning, making social security one of the best programs ever. The one thing they failed to anticipate was the post-war baby boom, which is what necessitates some tinkering now. The ‘zombie lies’ (to use Digby’s words) that are spread about social secuirity must be combated.

POST SCRIPT: Parody of Old Spice ad

There are some things that just cry out to be parodied and one of them is this ad for Old Spice that I am sure that everyone must have seen because it has received so much publicity.

The Brigham Young University Library (of all places) has produced one of the best parodies.

The phony social security crisis-6: Retirement and the nature of work

The doomsayers have managed to persuade the majority of people that they will not receive anything from social security, though that is completely false. The idea that the only way to solve the overblown social security ‘crisis’ is to raise the age of full benefits eligibility from 65 to 70 is wrong. There are other ways to fix social security other than raising the retirement age. The most obvious is to remove the cap that limits the social security payroll tax to only those incomes below $106,800 (the ceiling for 2009). Currently all incomes above that limit do not contribute to the social security trust fund. But there should be no upper limit. As Kevin Drum points out in a handy chart, that one move alone would solve the Social Security problem but there are other ways.

Of course, lifting the cap on earnings that are subject to the social security tax is one of those solutions that will adversely affect only rich people who will hardly notice it but since it is this same group that forms the oligarchy that runs the government and the media and sets policies, such policies are not even considered because this greedy group cares only about increasing its wealth even more, aided in their attempts by the media ignoring this systemic feature. The New York Times recently ran a disapproving article about how the elites in Pakistan avoid paying taxes: “That is mostly because the politicians who make the rules are also the country’s richest citizens, and are skilled at finding ways to exempt themselves.” I wonder when the NYT will realize that the US is not much better?

How much one cares about the issue of raising the social security retirement age depends on what kind of job one does. It matters greatly if one has an easy job or a hard one. The attitude to work of elites in well-paying and interesting jobs done in comfortable conditions is a far cry from the experience of people who work because they must and are forced to do hard physical labor every day or work in conditions where they do mindless routine work under the constant supervision of bosses and at jobs that provide no intrinsic satisfaction. The former group enjoys working and tries to continue doing so as long as they can while for the latter group, retirement is a welcome relief, something they look forward to, a brief period of time when they can relax and enjoy life while still (hopefully) having fairly good health, before they become decrepit and die. Such people view raising the retirement age with horror and who can blame them?

Take my job. I spend my days almost entirely in climate-controlled buildings sitting at a desk. I have a lot of control over what I do and when I do it. The work is not repetitive and is intellectually stimulating. I enjoy my work so much that I take it home and do it on weekends and holidays too. So while I may put in a lot of hours at my job, it is not really work in the sense that most people conceive of work, and it would be absurd for me to claim that I am overworked. A raise in the retirement age would not be a blow to me.

And yet, all the media bloviators seem to not recognize this obvious fact about the importance of the quality of work that one does. They act as if it is only the number of hours that one puts in that matters, and not the nature or conditions of work. I am sick of hearing business and financial types justifying their high incomes by bragging about how hard they work. The media seem to venerate these people as highly industrious, as if an hour put in as an investment banker is the same as an hour working in an assembly line or on a construction site or as a waitress or picking fruit and vegetables on a farm.

The arrogance and sense of entitlement of Wall Street types is amazing. They seem to think that they are doing us all a favor and that if we make reforms that cut into their astronomical earnings, that they will teach us all a lesson by ‘going Galt’ on us, quitting what they do, taking over our jobs, and throwing us out of work, as seen in this email from one such person that has been widely circulating:

What’s going to happen when we can’t find jobs on the Street anymore? Guess what: We’re going to take yours. We get up at 5am & work till 10pm or later. We’re used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill, and when the only thing left to eat is on your dinner plates, we’ll eat that.

For years teachers and other unionized labor have had us fooled. We were too busy working to notice. Do you really think that we are incapable of teaching 3rd graders and doing landscaping? We’re going to take your cushy jobs with tenure and 4 months off a year and whine just like you that we are so-o-o-o underpaid for building the youth of America. Say goodbye to your overtime and double time and a half. I’ll be hitting grounders to the high school baseball team for $5k extra a summer, thank you very much.

So now that we’re going to be making $85k a year without upside, Joe Mainstreet is going to have his revenge, right? Wrong! Guess what: we’re going to stop buying the new 80k car, we aren’t going to leave the 35 percent tip at our business dinners anymore. No more free rides on our backs. We’re going to landscape our own back yards, wash our cars with a garden hose in our driveways. Our money was your money. You spent it. When our money dries up, so does yours.

Yes, all you lazy landscapers and chicken pluckers and farm workers and teachers out there whining about low pay and lousy working conditions. You better not blame the investment bankers and put restrictions on what they do and can earn because they will quit and come and take your jobs in revenge! Do you realize how impossible it is to live on just $85,000 a year ‘without upside’ (whatever the hell that is)? Because you know something? The reason they have been successful so far is because they are not only much smarter than you but they are also genetically programmed to work hard irrespective of what the job is or how much it pays, and they can do your job, whatever it is, much better than you can. So you better not mess with them.

The reality is that the despised landscaping or farm worker jobs are not only much harder than white-collar jobs but also actually produce things that people need and use. The Wall Street types represented by the author of the above email are actually parasites, making a living off other people’s money. They have no idea what real work is and yet think they do.


POST SCRIPT: The Wall Street business model

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gives the perfect summary of the thinking and morals of the Wall Street investment bankers who caused the financial crisis with their speculative practices.

The phony social security crisis-5: Raising the social security retirement age

(Continuing a series from March 2008.)

If you want to implement policies that really stick it to poor people, you have to do it when the Democratic Party is in power. The reason that Democratic administrations are the most useful vehicle for harming the poor is that those who call themselves ‘liberals’ are far more vigilant when Republicans are in power, rightly seeing them as out to serve the interests of the wealthy. But the Democratic party, while serving the interests of the same oligarchy, has fooled people into thinking that they are in favor of economic justice, so when they attack the poor, liberals are caught wrong-footed and do not mount a vigorous counter-attack.

That is something that the oligarchy that runs America realized some time ago but hasn’t quite sunk in with liberals because of their fixation on shoring up the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes. This interesting comparison between those who call themselves liberals and those who say they are progressives is worth pondering. One key difference is that “Progressives pursue issues; liberals support candidates”. Liberals who think they must support Obama at all costs because otherwise his opponents will benefit at the polls are falling into the same trap as with Bill Clinton, and will end up enabling policies they should oppose.

Despite Ronald Reagan railing against so-called welfare queens, he met vigorous opposition when he tried to pursue policies that harmed the poor. It was only after Bill Clinton’s election that we had so-called ‘welfare reform’ that resulted in a lot of poor people, including single mothers with young children, having their meager benefits cut off. (It was also Bill Clinton who signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.) Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pursing education policies that would have aroused strong opposition from liberals if Republicans had proposed them.

But the biggest prize that the oligarchy seeks is to destroy social security as a government program and safety net for the poor. George W. Bush wanted to privatize social security and got such a fierce response that it forced him to abandon the attempt. But now during the Obama administration and with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, we hear a lot of talk about reducing Social Security benefits, primarily by raising the retirement age for full benefits from the current 65 to 70. Although Republicans like John Boehner have initiated discussions on this, key Democrats are also going along with it.

Like he did with health care reform where he sabotaged the public option, Obama is handing off to others the unpleasant task of cutting the social security benefits of poor old people so that he can avoid responsibility. In this case he has appointed a commission (called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform but is derisively referred to as the ‘Catfood Commission’ because its likely recommendations will force old people to eat cat food to make ends meet) comprised entirely of elites (with one exception). As one blogger says:

[T]he Obama Administration appears to have chugged the austerity/jack rates/cut the deficit Kool-Aid insanity by forming the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They stuffed it with offensive idiots like Alan Simpson whose sole purpose is to screw the little people out of their social security savings. Hence the sickening nickname, the Catfood Commission.

This blogger is, however, still trapped in the ‘liberal’ mindset, saying, “I still find this hard to comprehend happened under a Democratic Party administration.” He does not realize that this is not an anomaly but precisely the role that the Democratic Party plays in the system.

The arguments in favor of raising the retirement age are presented in economic and demographic terms and in terms of fiscal responsibility. We are told that the social security trust fund will be unable to keep pace with the demands of retirees because we are living longer than we were when the program was started. That is true but the state of the trust fund is nowhere near as dire as it is often painted.

Also, while it is true that life expectancy has increased by 12 years (from 65 to 77) since 1935 when the program was established, that is not the whole story. Life expectancy has gone up because we have had success in reducing infant and childhood mortality with the development of vaccines and other medicines. The relevant figure for the social security discussion is the amount by which life expectancy has increased for people who reach the age of 65. Susan Gardner quotes from Nancy Altman’s book The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision To Bush’s Gamble:

For Social Security purposes, the correct question is not how many live to age 65, but rather how long those reaching age 65 live thereafter. Here the numbers are not as dramatic. In 1940, men who survived to age 65 had a remaining life expectancy of 12.7 years. Today, a 65 year old man can expect to live not quite three years longer than he might have in 1940, or 15.3 years beyond reaching age 65. For women, the comparable numbers are 14.7 years beyond age 65 in 1940; 19.6 years in 1990. [Emphasis added.]

The second major issue that is being ignored is that the people who are blithely suggesting raising the retirement age are well-to-do people who work in jobs that are interesting, pay really well, and are not physically demanding. It should be no surprise that Members of Congress, media personalities, corporate executives, Larry King and Andy Rooney, etc. are able to, and want to, work well past 65. They work indoors in air-conditioned buildings with legions of assistants to take care of the drudge work. They have plenty of vacation time and the money to relax how and when they feel like it. For such people, retirement would likely mean a less enjoyable life. Why would you want to give those things up? Furthermore, the rich are the very ones for whom the social security benefits form a negligible part of their retirement income. What they lose in social security benefits is negligible compared to what they gain on tax cuts.

Furthermore, life expectancy is much greater for those who are well off (and thus working at easy jobs) than for those who are worse off and thus likely to be working at difficult jobs, and the gap is increasing. For males age 60 in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, life expectancy only increased from 77.7 in 1972 to 79.6 in 2001. In contrast, the corresponding increase for the top half of earnings distribution went from 78.9 to 85.4.

So the people who work the hardest are the ones who already have the least time to enjoy retirement.

Furthermore, nowadays it is very hard for older people who get laid off to get another job and raising the retirement age would consign them to an even longer period of poverty. I also do not see the point of keeping older people working longer because that would mean fewer jobs for younger people, exacerbating the unemployment problem.

POST SCRIPT: Retirement is for losers

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on raising the retirement age.

The origin of religion-7: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

What has been discussed so far is the origin of prototypical religions, the early forms that consist of vague beliefs in supernatural forces and the afterlife. At various points in time, these became crystallized into concrete religions some of which are still extant, each distinguished from the others by their rituals and the specific forms that their beliefs take. This post will look at the originators of those religions. What distinguishes those who create specific religions (and those who follow them) from the rest of us?
Religions like Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, and Buddhism all seem to have had charismatic leaders, as do the more modern cults. This suggests that an important factor in the creation of relatively modern religions (by which I mean those that originated within the last three or four thousand years) lies in the qualities of the founders and this is the angle that neurologist Robert Sapolsky has investigated. He looks at the people who started these religions and what made them so effective at convincing others to adopt and propagate their ideas. He takes a Darwinian view and suggests that religious leaders had traits that enabled them to succeed that arose as a byproduct of selection for other features. It also explains why even now we have charismatic cult leaders regularly springing up (like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson are some names that immediately come to mind) who are able to persuade others to follow them even to death.
[Read more…]

The origin of religion-6: Religion as a by-product of evolution

As with other features in evolution, there are two possible ways that evolution can give rise to some phenomenon. One is that it is an adaptation that came about because it was directly advantageous in itself at some point in time. The other is that it is an accidental by-product of natural selection for some other trait that was advantageous. These two pathways are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that religion developed along both lines.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is largely the product of the second process. He thinks that asking what the survival value is for religion is the wrong question because it likely has none. His hypothesis is that belief in god and the afterlife is a by-product of a genetic pre-disposition to believe one’s parents. It is not hard to see why having the genes that tend to predispose one to obey one’s parents has a selective advantage over those that are either neutral or advocate disobeying them. Human infants in particular are very vulnerable and depend on the adults around them to enable them to grow to adulthood. Not listening to them could be disastrous, causing them to do life-threatening acts. But at the same time they lack the capacity to discriminate between the information fed to them. So young children believe both the useful and the useless, those supported by evidence and those that are simply unverifiable folklore, and over time the latter can morph into religious rituals and belief. As Dawkins says:

On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs will evolve over generations, either by random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry. Languages drift apart from a common parent given sufficient time in geographical separation. The same is true of traditional beliefs and injunctions, handed down the generations, initially because of the programmability of the child brain.

This theory would explain why most children adopt the beliefs of their parents and dismiss as absurd and unbelievable other religions, even though they both have that same lack of any evidentiary support. Since children tend to be surrounded by similar believers, they hold on to those beliefs into adulthood. And once these beliefs are firmly entrenched, people are reluctant to let go of them. This is why now, despite their obvious disadvantages such as wasted time and effort and resources propitiating an imaginary figure, religion can still endure.

But this only explains why children are willing to believe their parents. But why did their parents develop their beliefs in the first place? In some ways, this is a chicken-and-egg problem, and the resolution in likely the same, that they both co-evolved.

As I said in a previous post, there is evidence to suggest that our brains are hardwired to believe in the magical. It is similar to the way that our brains are evolved for language. Language has many commonalities with religion. It is ubiquitous and universal. While there is a huge variety in the number of languages around the globe, at least superficially, at the same time, the deep grammatical structures of languages reveal common structures, which has led to the idea that our brains are hardwired for language and that the process of learning a particular language involves superimposing the local vocabulary and other superficial features onto a universal and common foundation. In other words, what a child learns from the speech of others are cues that throw certain switches in the pre-existing brain’s circuitry that corresponds to the local language structure.

It is known, for example, that if you put children together who do not speak a common language, or speak only pidgin versions of a language or, in the case of deaf children, do not speak at all, they will together spontaneously develop a creole language that has many of the grammatical features of ordinary language, suggesting that the ability for language is innate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 24)

It is suggested that religion is like that. Due to evolution, we all have hardwired in our brains the propensity to see patterns that may not be there and to assign supernatural agency to natural events. What the many varieties of religions do is build upon this common base to create local religions, just the way local languages emerged around the globe while having a universal grammatical structure.

The suggestion has been made (but would be impossible to test) that if you put children who have no prior religious beliefs together for an extended period of time, they would spontaneously develop some form of religious belief that would have generic features that correspond to the kinds of religions that we see around us, because their brains have a similar predisposition to do so. If true, this would suggest that religion will always be with us, a sad future to contemplate.

But I am not so sure that this particular parallelism holds because there are key differences between language and religion. Language provides unquestionable benefits for any group of people and is always advantageous. While religion may have provided benefits in primitive societies, nowadays children are able to obtain scientific explanations for puzzling phenomena that were not available for their ancient ancestors, and so are less likely to build elaborate god-based theories. Few parents nowadays are likely to tell their children that thunder is a sign of god’s anger, even if they do not understand the science of it. Somewhat more people are likely to see god’s hand in major natural catastrophes (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods) and in disease epidemics but these will also surely decline. As the number of things that seem inexplicable shrink, the switches in the brain that trigger belief in the supernatural are less likely to be tripped.

At least, I hope so.

Next: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

POST SCRIPT: Global warming or biblical Armageddon?

The Onion News Network reports that Kansas has decided that in the interests of fairness, both theories concerning the end of the world should be taught to school children.

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming