Where Volunteering Meets Vacation

by Brendan James

Sarah Sloat questions the point of volunteer tourism, where travelers usually get a cheaper trip by signing up for community service in the host country:

Dr. Mary Mostafanezhad of the University of Otago consider(s) volunteer tourism to be, at best, an oversimplification of international development and, at worst, a perpetuation of colonialist behavior. (“Superior nations” have a moral responsibility to fix “lesser nations.”) During 16 months of ethnographic research, Mostafanezhad interviewed numerous volunteers about their experience working in Thailand and found that poverty was consistently described as a symptom of authenticity. “A result of this association is the depoliticization of poverty,” Mostafanezhad writes, “where questions of why or how people became ‘p00r’ are overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of the experience.”

Still, because volunteering does stem from a desire to do some good, critics of it acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be destroyed, but rather refocused. Perhaps volunteer tourism, as it is now, should be reserved for conservation efforts only. Donald Brightsmith a research assistant professor at Texas A&M, writes that the relationship between these three parties is a positive one: Volunteer tourists bring in funding for conservation research that is “chronically lacking,” researchers are able to complete their work, and volunteers receive the skill set that will help them become “young biologists, foresters, and veterinarians.”

Divine Revenue

by Brendan James

Yglesias proposes we start taxing churches:

Whichever faith you think is the one true faith, it’s undeniable that the majority of this church-spending is going to support false doctrines. Under the circumstances, tax subsidies for religion are highly inefficient.

What’s more, even insofar as tax subsidies do target the true faith they’re still a pretty bad idea. The basic problem with subsidized religion is that there’s no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity. When a factory spends more money on plant and equipment then it can produce more goods per worker. But soul-saving doesn’t really work this way. Upgrading a church’s physical plant doesn’t enhance the soul-saving capacity of its clergy. You just get a nicer building or a grander Christmas pageant. There’s nothing wrong with that. When I was young I always enjoyed the Grace Church Christmas pageant. But this is just a kind of private entertainment (comparable to spending money on snacks for your book club—and indeed what are Bible study groups but the original book clubs?) that doesn’t need an implicit subsidiy.

Dylan Matthews crunches the numbers:

[Sociologist Ryan] Cragun et al estimate the total subsidy at $71 billion. That’s almost certainly a lowball, as they didn’t estimate the cost of a number of subsidies, like local income and property tax exemptions, the sales tax exemption, and — most importantly — the charitable deduction for religious [giving]. Their estimate that religious groups own $600 billion in property is also probably low, since it leaves out property besides actual churches, mosques, etc.

The charitable deduction for all groups cost about $39 billion this year, according to the CBO, and given that 32 percent of those donations are to religious groups, getting rid of it just for them would raise about $12.5 billion. Add that in and you get a religious subsidy of about $83.5 billion.

Don’t Trip Over Psychedelics

by Brendan James

A fresh review of US health records by Norwegian researchers reveals yet more evidence that psychedelic drugs won’t fry your brain:

“Early speculation that psychedelics might lead to mental health problems was based on a small number of case reports and did not take into account either the widespread use of psychedelics or the not infrequent rate of mental health problems in the general population,” [researcher Teri] Krebs was quoted in a release from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “Over the past 50 years tens of millions of people have used psychedelics and there just is not much evidence of long-term problems.”

Surely people have had bad trips. And, the researchers report, surely they have. But their population study was looking at more permanent problems; they report that the “adverse effects of psychedelics are usually short-lived; serious psychiatric symptoms following psychedelic use are typically resolved within 24 hours or at least within a few days.” And anecdotal reports of longer-term mental issues or “hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder” they tend to reject as unsupported by further investigation, mistaking correlation for cause, or derived from small studies with suspect methodologies.

Animals Can’t Take An IQ Test

by Brendan James

Jessica Love complains about the way we rank animal intelligence:

The problem is that though some animals laze in Chicago apartments, others dwell in rural pastures or factory farms or rainforest canopies or 1,000 feet underwater. Some animals live in small groups, others in solitude, and still others in flocks thousands strong. Just last week I learned that a limiting factor for tool use—the smoking gun of animal intelligence—may well be physical dexterity: the dumb, lucky ability to clamp or poke or push things around with some precision. Ranking the intelligence of animals born into such different environments, family units, and bodies is as futile as it is irresistible.

Nor is it unproblematic that we humans have a complete monopoly on IQ test design and implementation. As the Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal recently described, this has led to a number of anthropocentric mishaps: testing whether elephant-sized elephants could identify their own reflections inside human-sized mirrors, or investigating facial recognition in primates using human faces rather than primate ones. Whoops.

Egypt, Israel’s Best Frenemy

Despite Israel’s ardent advocacy for the junta, Zack Gold argues the Jewish state will soon regret that support:

Indeed, the most difficult point in Egyptian-Israeli relations following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster was not, as many would have guessed, when war broke out between Hamas and Israel in November 2012, a time when Morsi was in control. Despite the Brotherhood’s affinity for Hamas, the Morsi government worked with both sides to mediate and to guarantee a cease-fire. At the time, observers noted little difference between the Morsi government’s approach and that of the Mubarak regime during the 2008­–09 Israeli operation in Gaza.

Rather, the closest Israel and Egypt came to a break in relations was in the autumn of 2011, when Egypt’s military was calling all the shots.

In August 2011, terrorists tunneled from Gaza into Sinai and then on to Eilat, where they began attacking Israeli civilians and soldiers. Israeli military forces responded, accidentally killing several Egyptian border guards. Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister initially called for a change in Egyptian-Israeli relations, saying that the Camp David accords between the two countries were “not sacred.” The following month, a violent mob breached the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Now, thrown from government, bitter Muslim Brothers are on the streets agitating against Israel again:

The Brotherhood is hardly alone in its antagonism. After their successful petition campaign against Morsi, the anti-Islamist protesters that make up Egypt’s Tamarod (Rebellion) movement have set their sights on throwing out the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Both Egyptian Islamists and secular nationalists generally oppose aspects, if not the entirety, of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Islamists, however, already have significant credibility with the public on the issue; it is the secular nationalist camp that tends to be more vocal in its opposition.

Treating Your Stomach For Depression

by Brendan James

Carrie Arnold explores research pointing to increasing evidence “that psychiatric woes can be solved by targeting the digestive system”:

For decades, researchers have known of the connection between the brain and the gut. Anxiety often causes nausea and diarrhea, and depression can change appetite. The connection may have been established, but scientists thought communication was one way: it traveled from the brain to the gut, and not the other way around.

But now, a new understanding of the trillions of microbes living in our guts reveals that this communication process is more like a multi-lane superhighway than a one-way street. By showing that changing bacteria in the gut can change behavior, this new research might one day transform the way we understand — and treat — a variety of mental health disorders.

So far it looks like tweaking bacteria would carry the most mental benefits while a patient is still young.

Syria In The Red, Ctd

by Brendan James

Andrew J. Tabler advises the White House move to preempt further chemical violence:

Washington should make clear to Russia and Syria that, absent convincing evidence of the regime exercising control over all C.W. [chemical weapons] on its territory, episodes such yesterday’s will require the United States and its allies to take military action to prevent future use. Given the practical difficulties of locating and seizing C.W. stocks and the danger to nearby civilians from attacks on C.W. storage sites, such a warning would presumably mean airstrikes on regime units responsible for using chemical agents and, perhaps, on C.W.-related facilities.

The Post’s editorial board also opts for intervention, through a no-fly-zone. Larison shoots down the idea:

A no-fly zone isn’t going to target the missiles and artillery that the regime would use to launch more chemical weapons. As such, a no-fly zone might be imposed over southern Syria and civilians would still come under attack anyway. Establishing a no-fly zone creates the illusion of protection without offering the real thing. Foreign attacks on the Syrian military would give Assad another incentive to use more chemical weapons, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to prevent future use of those weapons.

U.S. military action wouldn’t reduce the likelihood of more chemical weapons being used against civilian targets, and to the extent that it succeeded in weakening regime forces it would increase the chances that those weapons are captured by jihadists.

More Dish on the renewed debate over intervention here and here.

From Bradley To Chelsea Manning, Ctd

by Brendan James

Jake Tapper interviewed a friend of Manning’s:

Emily Greenhouse notes that Manning could face serious danger in prison now that she’s announced her identity as a woman:

Discrimination and violence, especially sexual violence, against transgender women is disproportionately bad. And in prison, according to a 2009 study of inmates in California, some sixty per cent of male-to-female transgender individuals locked up with cisgendered men suffered sexual assault. Not one of the transgender inmates in the study trusted guards to protect them against rape and harm.

Amanda Hess explains the legal measures that are in place:

[D]etention facilities (including military ones) must follow special policies to protect inmates like her. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Though real-world implementation of the PREA standards has been slow-moving, the act ostensibly requires facilities to—among other things—take extra care in assigning housing to transgender inmates to reduce their risk of assault. That often means respecting the prisoner’s stated gender identity. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, housing decisions “must be made on a case-by-case basis” and “cannot be made solely on the basis of a person’s anatomy or gender assigned at birth.”

The transgender inmate’s “views regarding their personal safety must be seriously considered,” as well, and the “decisions must be reassessed at least twice per year.” Simply placing the at-risk inmate in solitary confinement to sidestep the gender issue is not an acceptable option.

Winston Ross notes how the same act could allow Manning to end up in a women’s prison:

[The Prison Rape Elimination Act] led to regulations from the federal Department of Justice to determine housing for transgender inmates on a case-by-case basis, “taking into account factors like personal preference and safety needs,” according to the ACLU, not solely based on their genitals. The act bans “protective custody” for transgender inmates, along with segregated LGBT housing units, and it requires staff to be trained on how to communicate with and treat transgender inmates, even including the ban of “genital searches of transgender inmates just to determine their gender.” Those rules, as of June, apply to all correctional facilities that require federal funding.

Manning’s notoriety and her public revelation about being transgender already put her at serious risk of harassment and/or rape at Leavenworth. No giant leap from there, then to argue that Manning would be best protected by the prison rape act by doing time in a women’s facility, [Dru Levasseur, transgender rights project director at Lambda Legal] said.

Previous commentary here.

The Cooperation Gap And The Wage Gap

by Brendan James

Derek Thompson spotlights a new study that explains an aspect of why women are overrepresented in fields that demand more cooperation:

[The study’s] most important conclusion involves perceptions of relative competence. Basically, if you think your colleagues are idiots, you don’t want to cast your lot with them. But if you think your colleagues are smart, you’ll see the advantages in working as a team. Women demonstrated less confidence about their own abilities, the researchers said, and more confidence in their potential partners’ abilities. They were also much more sensitive to increasing their potential partner’s incomes, reinforcing a well-established idea that women demonstrate more “inequity aversion” than men. That is, they’re less comfortable with their colleagues making dramatically different salaries.

How knowing this may help address the gender wage gap:

[I]nterestingly, the researchers found that a tiny tweak in team-based compensation erased this entire gender gap. [Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval] cleverly ran an experiment allowing men and women to select team-work versus solo-work, and then re-ran the experiment increasing the returns from excellent team-work by about 10 percent. Once they did this, the cooperation gap between men and women disappeared … In other words, men are more sensitive than women to small tweaks in team-based compensation.

Dying A Virtual Death

by Brendan James

Rob Gallagher defends videogames from the charge of cheapening death, arguing that developers “have begun to use games’ capacity to devalue life to explore what death means in a culture of digitization”:

When videogames are accused of cheapening death the implicit model against which they are being judged is that of classical tragedy (or at least Hollywood’s take thereon), a genre based around cathartic representations of credible, psychologically “deep” characters facing up to their mortality over the course of a linear narrative arc. And, as critics such as Jesper Juul and Graeme Kirkpatrick have argued, judged on these terms, games are going to fail–not least because predestined doom, or the bracing arbitrariness of senseless death, are themes that tend to translate poorly to a medium that is supposed to be about agency and choice.

But why should tragedy be the gold standard? Where tragedy has traditionally presumed that time is linear, death is final, and the difference between things that are alive and things that are not-alive is clear, videogames are better equipped than most media to help us understand a world in which these convictions are ever-more open to question … In a sense, then, those who suggest that videogames fail to respect the sanctity of life might be on to something. If critics have praised other media for inducing sympathy or sorrow, contemplation, humility, or horror in the face of death, interactive media may be better equipped to provoke fear, hilarity, culpability, cynicism, frustration, and curiosity.

More Dish on the unique narratives of videogames here.