Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Explaining religion

A large excerpt below that attempts to explain religion in biochemical or evolutionary terms. Because the research is almost all conducted by unbelievers, it misses the obvious -- that religion is simply an extension of the very human trait of seeking explanations for things. And seeking explanations for our own existence is at the heart of what religion is about. Some Christians might even say that God gave us the ability to seek explanations so that we could discover Him

Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon-arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens-but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a "surveillance-camera" God might improve reproductive success to an individual's Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person's reputation-for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

It is an ambitious shopping list. Fortunately, other researchers have blazed a trail. Patrick McNamara, for example, is the head of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory at Boston University's School of Medicine. He works with people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. This illness is caused by low levels of a messenger molecule called dopamine in certain parts of the brain. In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinson's had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals, and that the difference seemed to correlate with the disease's severity. He therefore suspects a link with dopamine levels and is now conducting a follow-up involving some patients who are taking dopamine-boosting medicine and some of whom are not.

Such neurochemical work, though preliminary, may tie in with scanning studies conducted to try to find out which parts of the brain are involved in religious experience. Nina Azari, a neuroscientist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who also has a doctorate in theology, has looked at the brains of religious people. She used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure brain activity in six fundamentalist Christians and six non-religious (though not atheist) controls. The Christians all said that reciting the first verse of the 23rd psalm helped them enter a religious state of mind, so both groups were scanned in six different sets of circumstances: while reading the first verse of the 23rd psalm, while reciting it out loud, while reading a happy story (a well-known German children's rhyme), while reciting that story out loud, while reading a neutral text (how to use a calling card) and while at rest.

Dr Azari was expecting to see activity in the limbic systems of the Christians when they recited the psalm. Previous research had suggested that this part of the brain (which regulates emotion) is an important centre of religious activity. In fact what happened was increased activity in three areas of the frontal and parietal cortex, some of which are better known for their involvement in rational thought. The control group did not show activity in these parts of their brains when listening to the psalm. And, intriguingly, the only thing that triggered limbic activity in either group was reading the happy story.

Dr Azari's PET study, together with one by Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania, which used single-photon emission computed tomography done on Buddhist monks, and another by Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal, which put Carmelite nuns in a magnetic-resonance-imaging machine, all suggest that religious activity is spread across many parts of the brain. That conflicts not only with the limbic-system theory but also with earlier reports of a so-called God Spot that derived partly from work conducted on epileptics. These reports suggested that religiosity originates specifically in the brain's temporal lobe, and that religious visions are the result of epileptic seizures that affect this part of the brain.

Though there is clearly still a long way to go, this sort of imaging should eventually tie down the circuitry of religious experience and that, combined with work on messenger molecules of the sort that Dr McNamara is doing, will illuminate how the brain generates and processes religious experiences. Dr Azari, however, is sceptical that such work will say much about religion's evolution and function. For this, other methods are needed.

Dr McNamara, for example, plans to analyse a database called the Ethnographic Atlas to see if he can find any correlations between the amount of cultural co-operation found in a society and the intensity of its religious rituals. And Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, has already done some research which suggests that the long-term co-operative benefits of religion outweigh the short-term costs it imposes in the form of praying many times a day, avoiding certain foods, fasting and so on.

On the face of things, it is puzzling that such costly behaviour should persist. Some scholars, however, draw an analogy with sexual selection. The splendour of a peacock's tail and the throaty roar of a stag really do show which males are fittest, and thus help females choose. Similarly, signs of religious commitment that are hard to fake provide a costly and reliable signal to others in a group that anyone engaging in them is committed to that group. Free-riders, in other words, would not be able to gain the advantages of group membership.

To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes published in 1988 by Yaacov Oved of Tel Aviv University. Dr Sosis picked 200 of these for his analysis; 88 were religious and 112 were secular. Dr Oved's data include the span of each commune's existence and Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.

A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes (30 religious, 53 secular) to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. The two researchers examined things like food consumption, attitudes to material possessions, rules about communication, rituals and taboos, and rules about marriage and sexual relationships.

As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted (one is still going, at the grand old age of 149). But the same did not hold true of secular communes, where the oldest was 40. Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community-what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. Because a kibbutz, by its nature, depends on group co-operation, the principal difference between the two is the use of religious ritual. Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. It should, therefore, be possible to observe whether group rituals do improve co-operation, based on the behaviour of men and women.

To do so, Dr Sosis teamed up with Bradley Ruffle, an economist at Ben-Gurion University, in Israel. They devised a game to be played by two members of a kibbutz. This was a variant of what is known to economists as the common-pool-resource dilemma, which involves two people trying to divide a pot of money without knowing how much the other is asking for. In the version of the game devised by Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle, each participant was told that there was an envelope with 100 shekels in it (between 1/6th and 1/8th of normal monthly income). Both players could request money from the envelope, but if the sum of their requests exceeded its contents, neither got any cash. If, however, their request equalled, or was less than, the 100 shekels, not only did they keep the money, but the amount left was increased by 50% and split between them.

Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle picked the common-pool-resource dilemma because the communal lives of kibbutz members mean they often face similar dilemmas over things such as communal food, power and cars. The researchers' hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened.

Dr Sosis is not the only researcher to employ economic games to investigate the nature and possible advantages of religion. Ara Norenzayan, an experimental psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has conducted experiments using what is known as the dictator game. This, too, is a well-established test used to gauge altruistic behaviour. Participants receive a sum of money-Dr Norenzayan set it at $10-and are asked if they would like to share it with another player. The dictator game thus differs from another familiar economic game in which one person divides the money and the other decides whether to accept or reject that division.

As might be expected, in the simple version of the dictator game most people take most or all of the money. However, Dr Norenzayan and his graduate student Azim Shariff tried to tweak the game by introducing the idea of God. They did this by priming half of their volunteers to think about religion by getting them to unscramble sentences containing religious words such as God, spirit, divine, sacred and prophet. Those thus primed left an average of $4.22, while the unprimed left $1.84.

Exactly what Dr Norenzayan has discovered here is not clear. A follow-up experiment which primed people with secular words that might, nevertheless, have prompted them to behave in an altruistic manner (civic, jury, court, police and contract) had similar effects, so it may be that he has touched on a general question of morality, rather than a specific one of religion. However, an experiment carried out by Jesse Bering, of Queen's University in Belfast, showed quite specifically that the perceived presence of a supernatural being can affect a person's behaviour-although in this case the being was not God, but the ghost of a dead person.

Dr Bering, too, likes the hypothesis that religion promotes fitness by promoting collaboration within groups. One way that might work would be to rely not just on other individuals to detect cheats by noticing things like slacking on the prayers or eating during fasts, but for cheats to detect and police themselves as well. In that case a sense of being watched by a supernatural being might be useful. Dr Bering thus proposes that belief in such beings would prevent what he called "dangerous risk miscalculations" that would lead to social deviance and reduced fitness.

One of the experiments he did to test this idea was to subject a bunch of undergraduates to a quiz. His volunteers were told that the best performer among them would receive a $50 prize. They were also told that the computer program that presented the questions had a bug in it, which sometimes caused the answer to appear on the screen before the question. The volunteers were therefore instructed to hit the space bar immediately if the word "Answer" appeared on the screen. That would remove the answer and ensure the test results were fair.

The volunteers were then divided into three groups. Two began by reading a note dedicating the test to a recently deceased graduate student. One did not see the note. Of the two groups shown the note, one was told by the experimenter that the student's ghost had sometimes been seen in the room. The other group was not given this suggestion.

The so-called glitch occurred five times for each student. Dr Bering measured the amount of time it took to press the space bar on each occasion. He discarded the first result as likely to be unreliable and then averaged the other four. He found that those who had been told the ghost story were much quicker to press the space bar than those who had not. They did so in an average of 4.3 seconds. That compared with 6.3 seconds for those who had only read the note about the student's death and 7.2 for those who had not heard any of the story concerning the dead student. In short, awareness of a ghost-a supernatural agent-made people less likely to cheat.


The Man Islamists Cannot Silence

By Richard L. Benkin

He fired the first salvo in 2003 and has been sticking his thumb in Islamist eyes ever since. Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury describes himself as a "Muslim Zionist." He is unabashedly pro-US, pro-Israel, and anti-Islamist. More importantly, he remains all of that from within the Muslim world, which he refuses to leave. I have fielded any number of asylum requests for him, and he declined them all. "Retreat is not in my vocabulary," he says, for he believes that if he were to leave his country, his credibility would be gone, and Islamists would claim victory; a satisfaction he refuses to give them. "Bangladesh is my country," he says. "Let the radicals leave!"

Since 2003, we have fought not only a battle of ideas but also a battle of wills with our adversaries; and the skirmishes never end. Shoaib has been imprisoned and tortured. He has been beaten, and Islamists bombed his newspaper before they and their cronies in the ruling party seized the premises. All of this happened after Shoaib published articles that exposed the rising strength of Islamist radicals in Bangladesh, urged relations with Israel, and advocated genuine interfaith dialogue based on religious equality.

In November of that year, he was about to board a plane for Bangkok and then Israel (there are no direct flights between Dhaka and Tel Aviv), agents grabbed him. Eventually, they charged him with sedition, treason, and blasphemy, which are capital offenses and could send Shoaib to the gallows.

In 2005, however, after an intense seventeen month campaign for his freedom, Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) took on his case. He summoned then Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury to his Washington office, and the three of us had a sometimes acrimonious, always difficult, hours-long meeting. As Kirk (a member of the House Appropriations Committee) describes it, we had a "full and frank discussion," after which Dhaka agreed to free Shoaib Choudhury.

Our elation was short-lived, however, when Shamsher Chowdhury clarified that Shoaib would be freed on bail even though the ambassador had just admitted that there was no substance to the charges. To be sure, we had won the most important point: Shoaib would be free. Still, I looked up and said, "Not good enough. It's an old and tired ruse used by tyrants," I continued. "Free the dissident but keep the charges pending in order to silence him." And so we argued some more until Chowdhury relented and agreed that Dhaka would drop the charges not long after Shoaib's release.

That was three years ago. The charges remain, even though numerous Bangladeshi officials have made the same admission as the ambassador; that the charges are baseless and are maintained only to placate the country's radical Islamists. Bangladesh's population is about 88 percent Muslim, a figure that is growing constantly, especially as Hindus are being ethnically cleansed from that country, falling from 18 to nine percent of the population. Although radical Islamists affiliated with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations represent only a small proportion of the population, they have infiltrated and taken charge of almost every major institution in Bangladesh from education and banking to police and the judiciary.

For months, both sides had settled into a sort of stasis until this past fall when the Bangladeshis tried illegally to revoke Shoaib's bail and send him back to prison. The fact that we continued to frustrate these attempts could have had something to do with what happened next. On the evening of March 18, as Shoaib sat at his desk working on another edition of his newspaper, Weekly Blitz, a large contingent of armed goons from the government's paramilitary squad -- the hated and feared Rapid Action Battalion or RAB -- burst into his office. They ordered all employees out, seized Shoaib's means of contacting the outside, and began "interrogating" him.

Fortunately, his driver quickly alerted Shoaib's brother, Sohail, who telephoned me in the United States. Shoaib's life was in very real danger, so we determined on an immediate course of action. Sohail called Luke Zahner, Second Secretary at the US Embassy in Dhaka, and a long time supporter of Shoaib's. Zahner, who had previously helped set up USAID's elections support program in Iraq, notified U.S. Charg‚ d'Affaires Geeta Pasi.

I telephoned Kirk's office and described the events unfolding in Dhaka and their life-and-death nature to Andria Hoffman, who is Kirk's point person on the Choudhury case. "These [RAB] are bad people. I know them, and you don't even want them as friends, let alone be on their bad side. They're the kind of group where people sometimes go into their custody and `disappear.'"

Hoffman got to Kirk, and they set up an emergency command center in his Longworth Building office. I then called three other legislators who have been especially supportive of Shoaib: Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA). Their staffs -- who had frequently worked with me on Shoaib's case -- said they would take action and coordinate further with Kirk's office.

That done, I telephoned Bangladesh's DC embassy and told them the following: "If I don't receive a telephone call confirming that Shoaib has been released unharmed and soon, you're going to have a s**t storm like you've never even imagined." Within a short time, the embassy received calls from all four members of Congress mentioned above, as well as several others who they got involved. Hoffman called the Embassy's political secretary, Sheikh Mohammed Belal on his personal cell phone, demanding action.

Cut to Bangladesh. After holding Shoaib for about an hour an a half, an RAB officer said (and I am paraphrasing here), `Oh look, it appears he has some illegal drugs in his desk drawer.' Now, I have known Shoaib as a brother for years, and we have spent a lot of time together. The man is simply not involved in any way with drugs. Moreover, he and I have spoken on many occasions of the paramount importance of his remaining "squeaky clean" in every way so as not to give his enemies an excuse to further persecute him. According to Sohail Choudhury, the evidence had to be planted, a tactic that RAB has been known to use rather liberally. No matter; they blindfolded Shoaib and took him to a "detention center" within RAB's office in the capital. According to Shoaib, the officers continued the verbal assault non-stop. They threatened him specifically and journalists in general for their criticism of the current military-backed government. They repeatedly called Shoaib a "Zionist spy and agent of the Jews."

At one point, Shoaib reminded them that they were violating a US Congressional Resolution that calls for an end to this sort of harassment, something with which the government said it would comply. House Resolution 64, authored by Kirk and co-sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) calls on the Bangladeshis to drop all charges against Shoaib and end all harassment of him and his family. It passed last year by an overwhelmingly 409-1 margin. Their response was a string of expletives about the United States and the value of its resolutions.

As they approached the three hour mark, things were turning even nastier. RAB officers told Shoaib that he could expect a steady diet of this, or even worse, unless he began working for them; something that he called "ridiculous." Then the phone rang. The officers told Shoaib that the call came from "a high government official" ordering them to let him go. He phoned Sohail and asked him to bring him home.

Before they allowed them to go, however, Shoaib's captors forced the pair to sign an affidavit giving RAB the power to enter their home or business at any time and for any reason; although it should be added that it had no warrant or other sort of order when its men broke into his newspaper earlier. As such, Shoaib remains in danger, especially as his legal status remains equivocal at best.

Although Shoaib was released unharmed, the action represents a serious escalation of the government's and its Islamist cronies' attempt to silence this courageous journalist who now counts supporters on every continent. Equally important, we have learned over the years that they do these things periodically to probe us and test our resolve. They want to know if we are going to react or note. They want to know if we still are ready to defend Shoaib and other anti-Islamists or if we have lost interest.

Unfortunately, they started this false persecution on the assumption that no one would care what happened to Shoaib, and many in the government still believe that we Americans have little resolve -- and actually have told me that. And so they go after us. Our enemies count on this and point to success when they hear proposals to make concessions in Israel or to pull up stakes in Iraq and elsewhere. If we don't respond, and respond with strength, they'll continue persecuting Shoaib and others like him.

Because, in fact, the stakes go beyond even the fate of this hero. Muslim editors from Pakistan to Indonesia (and even the United States) have told us that Muslims throughout Asia are watching this case. They want to know if it is possible to stand against the radicals and prevail -- without running to the safety of the West, as they put it. If Shoaib prevails, they will be emboldened to act similarly. If we let him go down -- and that is exactly how they will see it -- they will remain silent.

When Shoaib was in prison, his brother told me that people all over the world who need a champion to save them from oppression look only one place, the United States; not to Europe; not to tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or Fidel Castro who claim to be freedom fighters; and not to terrorist like Osama Bin Laden. When we stand with Shoaib, we reinforce their belief in us.

In the meantime, Shoaib Choudhury refuses to be silent, especially he says given all the support he received. Two days after his abuse at RAB's hands, he published another edition of Weekly Blitz. Two of its headline articles were "RAB Cocoon of Terror" and "They want to Appease Islamists." He is our ally; he is my brother; he is the bravest man I know. He is the man whom Islamists cannot silence.


Two death-row inmates force a moratorium on capital punishment

About 7 o'clock on the morning of April 9, 1990, Tina Earley was dropping off her husband, Edward, at a dry-cleaning business they owned in Lexington, Ky., when a car driven by Thomas Clyde Bowling slammed into her vehicle. For reasons that remain unclear, Bowling jumped out of his car and shot the Earleys - killing them both and wounding their two-year-old son. Then he drove away. Within a couple of days, the police arrested Bowling for the crime.

About two years later, not far from the scene of the Earley murders, sheriff Steve Bennett and deputy sheriff Arthur Briscoe approached the cabin of Ralph Baze to arrest him on multiple warrants. Baze chose to resist. He fired three shots into the back of Bennett, killing him. Briscoe tried to get away, but he failed - Baze shot him twice, again in the back. Briscoe still wasn't dead, so Baze put a fatal bullet into his brain.

Juries placed both Bowling and Baze on death row. But a series of legal maneuvers has kept Kentucky from carrying out their sentences. Most recently, they have claimed a constitutional right to "an anesthetized death" that is "essentially painless" - something they say Kentucky can't provide because it executes via lethal injection, as does nearly every state that employs the death penalty.

Their case is currently before the Supreme Court, with a ruling expected by June. There hasn't been a single execution in the United States since a few days after the justices' September decision to take up the case - judges at all levels, including the Supreme Court itself, have issued stays of execution whenever death-row inmates have requested them. The result is the first nationwide halt to capital punishment since the 1970s. This moratorium could continue indefinitely if the court decides that murderers shouldn't have to confront the remote possibility that they will suffer briefly as they die.

The case, Baze v. Rees, boils down to an interpretation of the Eighth Amendment - and specifically the meaning of its ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." When the Founders wrote these words into the Constitution, their intent was to forbid the most gruesome measures: beheading, mutilation, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, and so on. Over time, the words of the Eighth Amendment have been taken as a restriction on torture and lingering death.

For a century, execution meant hanging - a form of capital punishment that often involves a near-instant death if the spinal cord is broken, or a minute or two of strangulation before unconsciousness arrives. Toward the end of the 19th century, the noose gave way first to the electric chair and then to the gas chamber, in the belief that they were more humane. Today, however, no state relies on hanging or the gas chamber exclusively, and only Nebraska uses the electric chair. (A handful of states allow the condemned to choose these methods; the last hanging occurred in Delaware in 1996.)

Just as the gas chamber replaced the gallows, older methods of execution have been supplanted by lethal injection, once again because it is regarded as more humane - swifter, less painful, and more certain. As a form of execution, it's a throwback to old-fashioned poisoning, but it's a far cry from Socrates and his hemlock. Lethal injection uses a three-drug cocktail that anesthetizes, relaxes, and finally kills. Bowling and Baze can't claim that lethal injection is unusual, because 36 states employ it. But they would like the Supreme Court to find that it is cruel.

The justices have a history of restricting the death penalty. In 1972, they essentially banned capital punishment because of what they regarded as its arbitrary application. (In the aftermath, Arkansas used its electric chair in a prison barber shop, according to The Death Penalty: An American History, by Stuart Banner.) Over the next four years, however, many states passed sentencing guidelines - and the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment once more. The court also has imposed limits: No one faces the executioner for rape, kidnapping, or crimes committed as minors, and the mentally retarded are exempt no matter what they have done.

Bowling and Baze would like the court to create a new prohibition on the grounds that lethal injection as currently practiced may not always kill with perfect painlessness. Their assertion highlights the controversial phenomenon of "anesthesia awareness," a condition in which patients are supposedly anesthetized for a procedure but in fact can feel pain and aren't able to communicate their distress to doctors. In the case of a three-drug lethal injection, it would mean that the first drug (an anesthetic called sodium thiopental) fails to work but the second (pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant) does its job and paralyzes the condemned as the third (potassium chloride) performs its grim function.

There is essentially no argument against lethal injection when it functions properly. During oral arguments on January 7, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy got the plaintiffs' lawyer, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., to admit as much. "If there were a way to guarantee that the procedure worked every time, then we wouldn't have substantial risk," he said. Yet death-penalty foes have claimed that lethal injections are often botched and that when they're botched they're cruel. The American Civil Liberties Union backs Bowling and Baze. It has filed a brief on their behalf, writing that current forms of lethal injection are "inconsistent with contemporary values and civilized standards of decency."

The advocates of capital punishment have shown little sympathy for this line of argument. "It's a last-ditch effort," says Josh Marquis, the Democratic district attorney of Oregon's Clatsop County. "To believe that a person who has committed the absolute worst crime should not suffer momentary discomfort is absurd." Bill Otis, a former assistant U.S. attorney who supports capital punishment, has likened the legal strategy to the one pro-lifers adopted in their attempts to outlaw partial-birth abortion: "The opponents know that they can't sell wholesale abolition to the country, so they're trying to focus on a particular procedure in order to gain a little ground." Capital punishment registers more public support than just about any other policy that is routinely deemed divisive. In a Gallup poll last October, 69 percent of respondents said that they favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

The debate over lethal injection seeks to shift the conversation away from the crimes of the condemned - nobody's fretting over the pain of Sheriff Briscoe - and endeavors to transform killers into victims, strapped into gurneys and awaiting pain. "We have to remember that the ultimate purpose of this procedure is to punish them for the exceptionally brutal crimes that they chose to commit," says Kent Scheidegger of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

One potential but flawed solution would be to require the presence of doctors at executions. They might ensure that the anesthetics are working as intended before the administration of further drugs, for instance. The problem is that doctors are professionally obligated to heal rather than to kill - the American Medical Association forbids its members to participate in executions. So does the American Society of Anesthesiologists. "This could have a chilling effect with patients, if they realize that anesthesiologists can double as executioners," says Orin Guidry, a Charleston, S.C., doctor who is a former president of the ASA. Last year in North Carolina, the state medical board threatened to strip the licenses of doctors who take part in executions. A judge stopped this move, but the ruling is under appeal, and points to the potential hazard of an inconclusive Supreme Court decision: expensive and time-consuming death-penalty litigation that might extend the current moratorium on capital punishment.

That could cost innocent lives. The familiar question of whether the death penalty is a crime deterrent has experienced a recent revival thanks to new analyses. In one sophisticated study that draws upon 25 years of FBI data, Roy D. Adler and Michael Summers of Pepperdine University have calculated that each execution correlates with about 74 fewer murders the following year. If that number or anything approaching it is accurate, it would mean that obstructions to capital punishment are deadly.


Australia: Incomes for low-paid leapt in recent years

THE incomes of the nation's poorest households rose more dramatically than those of the richest Australians in the final years of the Howard [conservative] government, buoyed by rising wages and bulging welfare payments. While lone parents, indigenous Australians and the disabled still struggled, overall the poorest households have enjoyed the largest rise in income over the past six years.

The findings of the first study to track changes to income and wealth in the same group of people cast a new light on one of Kevin Rudd's central themes in Opposition - that in John Howard's "brutopia" the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. During last year's election campaign, Mr Rudd described working families as the "forgotten people", but the new research appears to paint a contrary picture. Since 2001, earnings for those at the bottom of the ladder rose more sharply than for those near the top - the top 10 per cent suffering a slight fall from 2001 to 2006.

While the rise in overall wealth favoured the top end - primarily due to higher property ownership - increases to lower-end incomes meant the rich hadn't skated away from the poor. "The figures show current income is not a good predictor of future income," said labour economist Mark Wooden, who will detail the findings at the two-day New Agenda for Prosperity conference, presented by the Melbourne Institute and The Australian, opening at Melbourne University on Thursday.

The data comes from the federal Government's Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, a longitudinal study of 14,000 people nationwide, which is managed by the institute. "It shows everyone has done pretty well in Australia since 2001," Professor Wooden, institute deputy director, told The Australian. "The rich have done a little better overall than the poor, and those with property have had a big surge. "But those with property are spread across the income spectrum."

The data, compiled by the institute's Roger Wilkins, shows median incomes - after adjusting for inflation - for those in the lowest 10 per cent of households increased 29 per cent after tax to about $26,000. The top 10 per cent saw their income fall by 2.5 per cent to $138,000. Wealth for the median household has risen rapidly since the turn of the century, from $215,000 to $340,000, fuelled by the property boom and a 51per cent increase in average superannuation balances to $123,000. For the bottom 10 per cent, wealth rose from $114,000 to $175,000. For the top 10 per it rose from $770,000 to $975,000.

"Income changes have tended to favour the poor, with the biggest winners being those in the bottom 10per cent and the biggest losers those in the top 10 per cent," Professor Wooden said. "And if you factor in non-cash benefits provided by the Government, the figures would tilt even more in favour of the poor."

Professor Wooden said a significant contributor to the improved fortunes of the poor had been better employment prospects and relatively strong wages growth. Moves from welfare to work almost invariably mean increased incomes, but even among the employed it has been the low-paid who have fared best. "People don't tend to move from one minimum pay job to another," he said. "They move to better jobs. Also at the lower end, there are automatic pay increments built into the system, whereas atthe top of the scale when people are close to their maximum productivity potential, pay increases are harder to come by except when there's a promotion. "And those lighthouse examples of directors getting massive bonuses or payouts? They are just a tiny fraction of the overall picture."

The pro-poor picture in income growth had policy implications for welfare delivery. "The Government could be handing out dollars to people who will be doing a lot better in the near future," Professor Wooden said. "This approach won't do much to address systemic disadvantage."

Those who remained stalled in the lowest 20 per cent of income and wealth over the six years surveyed were the indigenous, lone parents and the disabled. "It is here where the study could point the way to more targeted welfare delivery," hesaid.

In an essay titled Howard's Brutopia: The Battle of Ideas in Australian Politics published in The Monthly in 2006 shortly before he became Opposition leader, Mr Rudd cites warnings about the "brutopia of unchecked market forces".



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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