Are Churchgoers Nicer?

Are churchgoers nicer people?  After reading some recent polling showing that churchgoers are more likely to support torture, I find that a hard sell.  Still, Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam says the answer is yes: in fact, churchgoers are so nice they even let people cut in line in front of them more often than others.

But does going to church cause you to be nice?  Or do nice people just like hanging out in churches?  Michelle Cottle reports:

Columnist E.J. Dionne (reading my mind) asked Putnam about the degree to which this phenomenon can be explained by the self-sorting joiners-are-joiners principle. After all, it's well established that people's personal relationships and social bonds in general are a huge predictor of how happy and, almost by definition, how engaged they are. Isolationism is good for neither the soul nor the community....Putnam acknowledged that it's tough to tease out such causal relationships. He did point to one aspect of their research that seemed to indicate that religious participation actively propels people up the niceness scale. By going back a year after first interviewing people and conducting a follow up, he and Campbell were able to track behavioral changes among interviewees who had, in the meantime, become more frequent churchgoers. In those cases, niceness indeed tended to rise with participation. 

....Coupled with Putnam's findings that young people today are significantly more secular than previous generations, this raises some troubling questions about our civic life going forward. Although, before any Jerry Falwell types start wagging their pious fingers, note that Putnam's research also suggests that the rise of the Christian Right and its politicization of religon played a major role in driving young people out the church. Luring them back, he argues, calls for decoupling faith and politics once more. Unhappy news for some of the old-school demagogues who have made their career flogging this union. But a very welcome prescription for the rest of us.

Well, I'm not sure how unwelcome this news really is, but I'll let that slide for now.  Europeans seem to be just as nice now as they were back when they went to church a lot.  Maybe nicer, in fact.  Nonetheless, check out that final conclusion: if you turn your church into an arm of the Republican Party, your fortunes are then tied up with the fortunes of the Republican Party.  That worked pretty well for conservative evangelicals for a couple of decades, but now the tide has turned.  Perhaps the answer is for young people to start joining nicer churches and avoiding the culture warriors.  That would be good for both niceness and churchgoing.

Job Losses Slow

The New York Times reports on the latest employment figures:

The United States economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, the government reported on Friday, a sign that the relentless pace of job losses was starting to level off slightly but was still nowhere near ending.

A year ago, the loss of more than half a million jobs in a single month would have seemed like a disaster for the economy. On Friday, experts were calling it an improvement.

This is being taken as yet another sign that although things are still getting worse, they aren't getting worse quite as fast as before.  Or, even more positively, that since employment is a lagging indicator (i.e., it usually keeps declining even after the rest of the economy starts to turn around), this means the recession might be nearly over.

Maybe.  It's true that, just as it's easy to get too optimistic in good times, it's also easy to get too pessimistic in bad times.  But I still wonder if there are more economic shocks around the corner.  If not, we might be headed for a slow recovery.  But if, say, Russia or Austria or Mexico suddenly decides to collapse, we might not be.  Obviously I don't know any more about this possibility than the next guy, but I'm still having a hard time generating much optimism about this report.  We'll see.

TX Women Paying for Own Rape Kits?

Consider this the Friday edition of the "You Gotta Be Kidding Me" beat: Women in Houston are being forced to pay for processing their own rape kits. So I guess that means that people claiming burglary will have to pay for fingerprint analysis, right? From

Justice, Texas Style

Tenaha, TX has apparently been using the state's forfeiture law to fleece—guess who? Mostly blacks and Latinos.

From CNN:

Chart of the Day - 5.7.2009

Here it is: the results of the banking system stress tests.  How did your bank do?

Quote of the Day #2 - 5.7.09

From a hacker who broke into the Virginia Prescription Monitoring Program:

I have your shit! In *my* possession, right now, are 8,257,378 patient records and a total of 35,548,087 prescriptions. Also, I made an encrypted backup and deleted the original. Unfortunately for Virginia, their backups seem to have gone missing, too. Uhoh :(For $10 million, I will gladly send along the password.

The site has since been shut down.  Bruce Schneier has more.

Taxing Carbon - Part 3

Apologies if you're getting bored with this, but here is Jeffrey Sachs weighing in on the cap-and-trade debate:

A straightforward carbon tax has vast advantages. (1) It can be levied upstream at a few dozen places — at the wellhead, the mine face, and the liquid natural gas depot — rather than at thousands or tens of thousands of businesses. (2) A carbon tax covers the entire economy, including automobiles, household use, and other units impossible to reach in cap-and-trade. (3) A carbon tax puts a clear price on carbon emissions for many years ahead, while a cap-and-trade system gives a highly fluctuating spot price. (4) A carbon tax raises a clear amount of revenue, which can be used for targeted purposes (R&D for sustainable energy) or rebated to the public in one way or another, while the revenues from a cap-and-trade system are likely to be bargained away well before the first trade ever takes place.

(Numbering mine.) This is amazing.  Sachs is a smart guy.  He's a famous economist.  But as near as I can tell, there's only one true statement in that entire paragraph.  Let's take a look.

First: Cap-and-trade can be implemented either upstream (i.e., you require permits for the inputs, like coal and oil) or downstream (i.e., you require permits for the outputs, the carbon that's actually emitted into the atmosphere).  It's just a matter of how you write the legislation.  The Waxman-Markey bill combines both methods, with electric plants and industrial sources covered downstream while refiners and other producers of liquids and gases are covered upstream.  On this score, there's no inherent difference between a tax and cap-and-trade.

Second: Cap-and-trade can cover the entire economy just as well as a tax can.  Again, it's just a matter of how you write the law.  Waxman-Markey would cover an estimated 85% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Third: Yes, a carbon tax does place a clear price on emissions — though it's worth keeping in mind that every serious tax proposal envisions changing the tax rate regularly in order to hit emission targets.  So this sentence is sort of true.  (On the other hand, it's worth noting that under a cap-and-trade system, the price of permits naturally decreases whenever demand for energy decreases, as it does in a recession.  So cap-and-trade acts as an automatic stabilizer, which is a handy feature.)

Fourth: Revenue is revenue.  There's simply no reason to think that revenue from cap-and-trade is any more likely to be bargained away than revenue from a tax.

On balance I think cap-and-trade is superior to a carbon tax on several grounds, but there are nonetheless perfectly good arguments in favor of a tax.  So why make arguments like these instead?  It's embarrassing.

Obama's "New Socialism"

How much of a socialist is President Obama? According to Jim Gilmore—the former Republican governor of Virginia whom Democrat Mark Warner trounced in last year's Senate race—Obama is so much of a socialist that he's created his own form of socialism.

We have learned a lot in the first one hundred days of the Obama administration. The most important lesson is that this administration’s operating ideology isn’t old-style liberalism or even old-style socialism. President Obama and his team are delivering a “New Socialism.”

Their “New Socialism” doesn’t need to capture property. It is content to control the economy through taxation and regulation and the attitudes of our citizens by the establishment of a culture through the power institutions of our society: the media, the education establishment, and powerful business interests. Moreover, the “New Socialism” seeks to create a conventional wisdom that discredits all alternative thought.

So now socialism doesn't even have to look or act like socialism to be socialism. New Socialists just have to try to control someone's "attitude" about something through the media, education, and/or powerful business interests.

That's a pretty big umbrella. (After all, trying to change an attitude about something through powerful business interests is "New Socialism." Does that make our last administration New Socialist?) So it got me thinking: What other politicos fit under Gilmore's New Socialism tent? How about Jim Gilmore? Let's see: Gilmore now heads up USA Secure, a security think tank comprised of "key national technology and infrastructure companies." What do they do?

Our goal is to gather a broad group of industries, first-responder non-profits, think tanks, and universities to speak with a steady and strong voice to all the different departments of government, particularly the Department of Homeland Security.

So it looks like Gilmore is using industry and universities to peddle influence to the government. That might end up changing or controlling some attitudes. Sounds pretty New Socialist to me.

Best Student Activism of 2008-2009?

Today's student activism news: High schoolers at Ursuline and Cardinal Newman, two Catholic high schools in California, think it's freakin' unfair that administrators canceled their prom due to the fact that students were freaking on the dance floor. To express their outrage, they're showing up at school in promwear this week.

Surely you've heard of other creative feats of student activism this past school year. MoJo, Campus Progress, and WireTap want to hear about them in time for the Hellraisers, our first annual student activism awards.

Here's how it works: You tell us about your favorite activism antics. Selected nominees will be featured in the September/October 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Anyone can nominate any current student activists (and we're not just talking college here! High schoolers, grad students, kindergartners—all okay).

Nominating is quick and easy. Do it here.


Bioelectricity Beats Ethanol

A new study in Science shows the best way to maximize "miles per acre" from biomass is to convert it to electricity, not ethanol.

Compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also doubling the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

"It's a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before," says study co-author Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.

The researchers performed a life-cycle analysis of bioelectricity versus ethanol technologies, taking into account the energy produced and also the energy consumed in each.

Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass.

A small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass. A comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel 9,000 miles on the highway.

"The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles," says lead author Elliott Campbell of the U of California Merced. "Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren't enough to overcome this.

While the results of the study clearly favor bioelectricity over ethanol, the researchers caution the issues facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex.

"We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate," says David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. "But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs."