Did Australia really ban all guns?

John Howard at Port ArthurSome of my American friends are arguing again on Facebook  about what Australia did about gun laws in 1996. Did we ban all guns? No.

Here’s what happened. In Australia we banned semi-automatic weapons (for almost everyone – see below) after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 (35 dead) and we haven’t had a mass shooting since. Farmers can have rifles to destroy livestock. Target shooting clubs that practice for the types of competitions that lead to the Olympic or commonwealth games competitions can have the type of guns that are used in those competitions. (You have to use the club’s guns for the first six months.) Duck hunters can still go duck hunting, but not with self-reloading shotguns. Some security guards (mostly those who accompany cash deliveries to banks) carry guns, for obvious reasons.

You need a licence to buy a gun, and you need a reason. ‘I just feel like it’ isn’t a reason. Individual owners are licensed and individual guns are registered. You can’t just go down the street and buy a gun. Semi-automatic weapons are banned, except for professional hunters (e.g., people who do feral culling) and farmers for destroying livestock, and then with limits (10 shot) on the magazine size. The state governments bought back a bit over 600,000  guns at market prices.

Banning semi automatic weapons was the important point, because that is what do you need to conduct a successful mass shooting. The whole country was behind this change. There have been some individual shootings since (1 or 2 or 3 dead, mostly domestic murder- suicides.) but no public mass shootings of the sort that happen in america. Our (conservative, very pro-American) Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, actually used the expression “we are not going to go down the American path.” We collectively came together in away that was stunning in 1996. We acted like a society, fixed a problem, and we have no reason to go back.

And no, other crime rates haven’t risen because innocent people can’t defend themselves.  Our long-run trends for most crimes  like burglary and house invasions are down.  (Remember to always look at crime rates – that means crime per 100,000 head of population, not raw numbers which can be expected to rise anyway because of population increase. And look at long run rates, not year to year fluctuation. Those wishing to get some data can go the the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute Of Criminology websites for serious data. Some crimes are rising, such as ‘newer’ issues like ice addiction.

Description  of Port Arthur Massacre  here.  Description of Australia’s gun laws here. Article on process of the buy-back and law here.


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Is voting for the lowest tax candidate always the best idea?

Australia will probably go to the polls next year, the American pre-primary debates will soon be underway, and politicians will no doubt be promising tax cuts, or at least promising not to raise them. In the last republican primaries in the US, there was a televised debate in May 2011when a group of Republican candidates stood in a row and declared they would not vote for one dollar in tax increases, even if they got ten dollars in spending cuts for it in negotiations with the president.

Most of don’t really want to pay taxes, but we know it’s a fact of life. We know that if a society is to function, somebody has to pay taxes, we would just rather it wasn’t us. However, even if we didn’t have the example of Greece in front of us, there are some basic rules of logic that tell us to be wary of politicians who refuse to raise taxes – ever.

The table below shows the levels of taxes of all forms of government for sixteen different economically advanced countries, the total spending  and the difference, all as  a percentage of GDP. Of course, the “difference” column isn’t necessarily the federal budget deficit or surplus, since some levels of government (say, a federal budget) may be in surplus while other levels (a state, or a city) may be in deficit or vice versa. But three countries do stand out as having a large gap between spending and taxes raised: Japan, (which has been bouncing in and out of recession for a very long time), France and the US.


Country Taxes Spending Diff
Australia 25.8 35.3 9.5
Austria 43.4 50.5 7.1
Canada 32.2 41.9 9.7
Czech Rep 36.3 43.3 7.0
Denmark 49 57.6 8.6
France 44.6 56.1 11.5
Germany 40.7 45.4 4.7
Italy 42.6 49.8 7.2
Japan 27.6 42 14.4
Netherlands 39.8 49.8 10.0
New Zealand 34.5 47.5 13.0
Norway 43.6 43.9 0.3
Sweden 45.8 51.2 5.4
UK 39 48.5 9.5
US 26.9 41.6 14.7
Unweighted average 38.9 47.3 8.4

The interesting thing about the US is that its government spending as a fraction of GDP is a bit below average, at about 40 per cent. Yet it has the highest ‘difference’, because its tax collection figure is the second lowest. In other words, the US doesn’t appear to have a problem with ‘big government’. What it does have a problem with is ‘not enough taxes.’

Of course, when a government spends more than it gets in taxes, its public debt rises. At present, the US has a total public debt to GDP ratio of just over 100 percent (A graph by Forbes is here,  and a clickable, sortable table is here, but the graphic shows poorly in this page, so you might wish to follow the link.)

US-Debt-to-GDP-ratio-Apr-2015 Forbes (dot) com

Of course, if a country wants to have world class medical and education systems, and first class infrastructure, these things have to be paid for.  Talk about America’s ‘crumbling infrastructure’ has become common place, and a report by America’s civil engineers is here. On top of this, the wars in Iran and Iraq were put on the national ‘credit card’ (i.e., funded by budget deficits).  Once it became obvious that the wars in Iraq and Iraq were going to take longer than a year, a tax measure should have been put in place to pay for them.

America also has the highest incarceration rate in the world, (about 4 times other advanced countries) and prisons cost money to run.  The following quote from the ‘smart asset’ website actually did shock me:

“The American prison system is massive. So massive that it’s estimated turnover of $74 billion eclipses the GDP of 133 nations. What is perhaps most unsettling about this fun fact is that it is the American taxpayer who foots the bill…” [The figure refers to all prison, state and federal –RS]

In October 2013, the US government shut down for two weeks over a fight between the President and the congress over spending, taxes and debt levels. The rest of the world, especially holders of US government bonds got the jitters when it questioned if the American government would be able to pay it bills.

As it is, the US will probably go into the next election with all candidates promising ‘no tax rises, ever.’ This will only mean that the US will continue running budget deficits, although they are getting smaller as the economy recovers from the 2008 recession. A recent Forbes article sums up the current situation, but the last sentence is the most important:

The US budget deficit fell to about $US483 billion in fiscal year 2014, almost a $US200 billion drop from the previous year and the lowest level of President Barack Obama’s six years in office. The US Treasury Department released the official figures on Wednesday, generally confirming figures released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last week. It’s the smallest deficit recorded since 2008.  FY2014 was the fifth consecutive year the deficit declined as a percentage of GDP. It is now an estimated 2.8% of GDP, a percentage that puts it below the average of the past 40 years. The Treasury’s figures chalked up the shrinking deficit to increased revenues from taxes and slowed growth in government spending. “It’s really a rise in revenues because of economic growth, because of the policies the president pursued, that we’ve made progress on the deficit,” said Shaun Donovan, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The deficit has fallen sharply over the past few years, despite constant brinksmanship in Washington over raising the US debt ceiling. But concern about deficits has virtually disappeared from the campaign trail ahead of the 2014 midterm elections after being a central theme of 2010’s elections. “Politicians campaigning this fall have rarely raised the subject, not to mention the difficult prescriptions that are required to deal with red ink,” said Greg Valliere, the chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group, in a recent note. “No one wants to talk about the deficit.” [Emphasis by RS.]

It’s the last sentence that is the most worrying. If no politician is prepared to even discuss the deficit, no one is going to address the elephant in the room. Americans need to decide if they are  willing to pay the taxes needed to live in a modern economy.  And with a republican congress opposed to any tax increases, this seems unlikely.

Sometimes voting for politicians who promise ‘no tax increases, ever,” is just a slow and painful way of cutting off your feet, an inch at a time. Sooner or later there’ll be another ‘crisis’ over debt levels, and maybe another shutdown, and the rest of the world will have the jitters when it questions if the American government will be able to pay it bills.

Next week, some figures on Australia’s so-called ‘budget crisis’ that miraculously seems to have gone away in a sleight of hand trick: if it ever existed in the first place.

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Good article by Kristen Lamb on tighter writing

Kristen Lamb regularly produces some blog post with excellent advice for writers on writing technique, and the use of social media for writers. here’s a re-blog on a recent post of hers.


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Doctor Economics – What We Should Do With Spammers

This blog is re-posted. I know the author, Paul de Lancey, from the Southern California Writers Conference. As for eating the Nigerian spammers who keep sending me messages wanting to hide US$20,000,000 in my bank account, sure!

Paul De Lancey's Blog


What is the most annoying aspect of our lives? It is, of course, spam on our computers. Spam is broken down into three basic types: ViagraTM, ways to lengthen your penis, and offers to inherit money from an ex-Nigerian dictator. All of this is only really useful to the kin of Nigerian dictators who are trying to finance penis-enhancement operations. And how many of us fit that description?

How about eat the spammers? Only four problems occur to me. First cannibalism in illegal in all fifty states. (I’m reasonably sure there’s religious exemption for this.) Second, how do we find the spammers? Third. what wine goes with grilled spammer? Merlot? Zinfandel? There are no books for this.

So, cannibalism is out. I never had much stomach for it anyway. I therefore propose a fee on all e-mail. Now hold your horses partner, let me finish. It would only be a…

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Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.

Posted in Atheism, book reviews, Christianity, Fundamentalist Religion., Fundamentalist Relligion, Islam, Religion, Religious violence, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

They told him he was a psychopath, and he thought they were joking.

The Psychopath Within by James Fallon

The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon

What would you do if your brain scan showed you were a psychopath? I’ve just finished reading ‘The Psychopath Inside’ by James Fallon (Penguin, 2013, 246 pages.) Fallon was a neuroscientist  studying the brain scans of psychopaths: serial killers with no conscience and no empathy. Co-incidentally, he had a folder with brain scans of all his own family members, which he had obtained (with their consent) because, for another study, he needed an entire family in which no one currently had Alzheimer’s disease.
Psychopaths all have certain abnormal features in the very front of the brain: the parts that deal with empathy and conscience. One day looking through his scans, he found one which had the exact features of a psychopath, but was in his family’s folder. Since the scans had numbers rather than names, he asked his research assistant to check who it belonged to, thinking the two sets of scans might have gotten mixed up. They hadn’t. The scan was his.
Fallon had never murdered anyone in his life, and never tortured animals as a child. So what was he doing with a brain scan that showed these types of abnormalities?

The remainder of Fallon’s book is an exploration of why some people become psychopaths and some don’t. Fallon concludes that although he has the physical brain abnormalities of a psychopath, he was stopped from growing in that direction by the loving home environment in his early childhood – something other psychopaths usually didn’t have. Nevertheless, he does show some psychopathic traits. He has exposed other family members to extreme danger, taking his brother camping at night in an area frequented by elephant herds without telling the brother what they were doing. Why? For the thrill of it. If someone offends Fallon, he doesn’t tell them straight away, but will wait for three or four years before springing some revenge on them, at a time they have entirely forgotten about the original incident. And he admits to not going to family funerals or graduations because he just felt there was something more interesting on – such as a chance to go gambling. work colleagues had told him over the years that he was a psycopath in the workpace, but he thought they were joking, or just disgruntled about something he had done, and he had dismissed their claims.

Fallon presents a rare portrait of himself, warts and all. For those who have an interest in psychology, or the nature-vs-nurture debate, this is a very interesting read.

So, what about you? Do you know people who all the advantages in early life and turned into very unpleasant people? Or who had appalling early lives and turned into nice people? Do you think we are any closer to solving the nature vs nuture debate?

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Do your Facebook friends manipulate you into re-posting their views?

Do your Facebook friends ever post things that end with “Only one percent of you will have the guts to re-post this. The other ninety-nine percent won’t”? Or “re-post if you support children with cancer? Those who don’t re-post. I suppose you don’t really care and you are not my real friends.”? Some of my friends do, and I don’t like it.

Sometimes I would re-post, except I resent being TOLD that if I don’t re-post stuff like this with these emotionally manipulative last lines, then I don’t have guts, or don’t care about kids with cancer, or don’t care about soldiers wounded in war, etc. I don’t intend to re-post these manipulative things on principle. The principle is, don’t try to guilt me into parroting your posts. I can decide for myself what I want to re-post. This is snarky emotional bullying.

Here’s a suggestion: NEVER re-post things that are based on guilting you into being a sheep. You have a mind of your own. Your friends shouldn’t need to manipulate you into supporting their social views or their favorite charity. If you feel strongly enough about something to re-post on your own, or you support a certain charity on its own merits, good. If not, why do your friends need to guilt you into being their sheep?

Instead of re-posting their posts, try cutting and pasting the text this blog entry into their Facebook post! I’m NOT suggesting that if you don’t you’re a bad person. That would be against my beliefs. But you could try it – if you feel the way I do.

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