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Entries in America (133)


If America won't ban real guns, maybe they should try banning toy guns rather than shooting children...


A post-racial America?

Guess which American political movement Cliven Bundy is a hero of. If the image isn't enough, here is one of his quotes: 

I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro... They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.

You guessed it, the man is a hero of the Tea Party. Not because of his racism (that is just a bonus!). Afterall, that is just the liberal media taking his perfectly innocent comments out of context.

No, Cliven Bundy is the sweetheart of the Republicans for his armed stand-off against the US Federal government. Bundy is a rancher, who feeds his cattle on public lands. Since 1993 he has refuse to pay the (below commerical rates) fees for exploitating public lands, and has racked up more than a million dollars in debt to the government. Bundy went to court and lost, and still continued to graze without paying the fees. A few weeks ago, the Federal government finally impounded his cattle while they were grazing on public lands, with release on condition of payment of his outstanding debt. Bundy whipped up a storm among survivalist-types, and set up an armed camp around his ranch. He publically announced war on the Federal government, announced that he would use lethal force if need be, and in a confrontation with the police his mob assalted federal officers.

Guess what the Feds did? They gave him back his cattle and withdrew from his lands.

To me, that is the true sign of racism in America, at a level far more important than Bundy's personal racism. Image if a black man living in Chicago had refused to pay a $1000 fine, then threatened armed force and finally assalted a police officer who had come to collect the fine. That black man would probably be dead, and if he was not dead he would certainly be in jail. Can there be any doubt that the Federal government treated this rich white man differently from how they do poor black men, despite a crime magnified a 1000-fold? 

Racism in America has changed rather than disappeared. It is now relatively rare (but not unheard of) to have people in power publically state views like that of Cliven Bundy. Explicitly racist laws have been removed from the books, and according to the Supreme Court, if a law does not explicitly evoke race then it is not racist, regardless of the intent or effect. No, racism in America is now more coded. It is not a CEO deciding that the company won't hire African-Americans, it is middle management not promoting black staff, while being careful not to give race as a reason. Electoral racism is not Jim Crow, it is voter suppression laws and underfunding of polling booths in black neighbourhoods.

The best examples of legal racism in America today are the drug laws. African-Americans use drugs at essentially the same rate as white Americans, making up 13% of the population and 13% of drug users. Yet African-Americans are three times as likely to be arrested for drug use, once arrested they are twice as likely to be charged and convicted, and if convicted they are twice as likely to be sent to jail. So overall, despite the same level of drug use, African-Americans are 13 times more likely to be sent to jail for drug use. Add onto this laws that extend the prison sentence among the black community, such as differential prison sentences for crack vs powdered cocaine, or the school zoning laws that amp up the sentence of drug use in inner cities versus rural areas. The net effect on the black community is absolutely destructive - thanks to the drug laws, 30% of all young black men in America will spend time in prison, after which a host of other legal impedements follow them for the rest of their lives, making basic rights such as housing, employment and voting far more difficult to gain.

That is the face of racism today in America. Implicitly racist laws, differential implementation of those laws, and a society which penalises both being poor and being black. Thanks to the legacy of slavery and explicit racism, the black community is far poorer than the white community, so a typical African-American gets hit with both racism and class warfare. What is needed to end this cycle of poverty and racism is not the election of a black President. Instead we need the repeal of the drug laws, the stand-your-ground laws and the myriad of other (smaller) legal injustices still on the books. And we need Affirmative Action and public education to break the cycle of poverty, providing a multi-generation pathway to ending the class-race divide. Unfortunately, while the Supreme Court does not seem to have a problem with the racial discrimination built into the drug laws, they are dismantling Affirmative Action and allowing voter suppression laws. Because the conservative wisdom is that as long you don't mention race, nothing you do is racist.


One year of gun violence in America

It has been one year since the horrific school shooting in Newtown, where 28 people were killed - mostly young children. Many people swore "never again", as always. So what has happened in the last year?

Not much. Congress managed to pass one single gun law - banning plastic guns. Obama did better, signing 23 executive orders that will help around the edges (such as allowing the CDC to do research into gun crime). At the state level, over 1500 gun laws were introduced, but only 109 were passed - and of these 70 reduced restrictions on guns. The didn't even manage to close the gun loophole at least requiring a gun license to purchase a gun.

Yes, in response to a major shooting of children, the US said "more guns". Why? Mostly because of the NRA. Over the past year they increased their pro-gun lobbying spend to $13 million, why pro-control groups only managed $1.8 million. 

And the result? According to the CDC, there were probably 33,000 people killed by guns in the past year. Slate tracked gun deaths as they were reported in the news (there is no official running tally in the US). They found 11,462 gun deaths reported, of which 205 were of children and 539 were teenagers. The vast majority of reported deaths were men (9652). The "missing deaths" were probably gun suicides, which tend to go unreported.

A sad anniversary for the US, with no foreseeable improvements in the future. 


Crazy old Ron Paul

Ron Paul is well known as the eccentric libertarian in the US Republican party. Unlike most Republicans, who say they are for small government only when it suits them, Ron Paul has been fairly consistent in taking libertarian positions regardless of whether they are conservative (in favour of tax cuts) or liberal (against drug regulation). He is hardly a perfect libertarian, being economically illiterate (does he have any idea of the consequences of scrapping the floating currency?) and radically anti-choice (apparently the government has no role in medicine, except to control women's reproduction), but he is the closest to it in today's Republican party. This explains why Ron Paul has the most fanatic supports of any politician in America, a hardcore group of Paulites that support him in every doomed Presidential primary campaign he goes on.

So it is interesting that this free-marketeer is going to the United Nations to sue his own supporters. Ron Paul supporters have been running to support Ron Paul's election. Now Paul wants direct control over the website, and like good freemarketeers his supporters want him to pay for it ($250K). Yes, like good libertarians, they are willing to damage their own long-term interests in order to make a quick buck, an entirely self-consistent (albeit, flawed) ideology. Ron Paul, by contrast, having campaigned against government oversight in general and the UN in particular, is hypocritical in appealing to regulatory bodies for a forced takeover of a private enterprise. Oh, he has a valid point in the website being associated with his name, but I guess government regulation is only okay when it helps him?


The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun

I resisted writing about the gun problem in the US after the Sandy Hook shootings, because what is the point? Nothing about guns is going to change in the US. Six years ago I was living in the US during the Virginia Tech massacre and watched as absolutely nothing was done to stop the constant death toll that guns create in the US. 260 Americans a day are injured or killed by guns, but no one with any influence will get up and call the Second Amendment an anachronistic hangover from the era of blunderbusses that needs to be repealed. It won't be, of course, and the whole tragic cycle of murder, handwringing and inaction will be repeated and repeated again.

2nd Amendment: Every American child, the NRA being untouchable, has the right to live in fear 

What has finally spurred me to put pen to paper is the juvenile morality displayed best by the NRA but also believed by many in the broader community. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun"

There is so much stupidity in this statement that I barely know where to start. Let's give guns to everyone, since then no one could possibly get killed, right? Oh sure, except even an ex-SEAL at a firing range can be killed, as happened in Texas yesterday, and being surrounded by armed guards hardly protected JFK. There are 350 million guns in America, but you would struggle to find an example of an armed civilian stopping a murder with a gun; despite the presence of armed civilians, shooters are almost invariably stopped by the arrival of police. Even surveys of criminals who are shot indicate that they are almost always shot by other criminals and not armed civilians. It seems like the only people shot by paranoid militia types are complete innocents. Just look at the FBI statistics. If you keep a gun in your home for self-protection, it is >40 times more likely to kill a family member (in domestic violence or an accident) than an intruder. 

Of course the idea that "good guys with guns" (and they have to be guys) stop crime is comically naive, like a John Wayne movie where the bad guy draws first yet the good guy manages to shoot his bullet out of the air. But to me the worst part of this stupidity is the very concept that the world can be divided into "good guys" and "bad guys", and that it is simply a matter of putting guns in the right hands. This manicheistic view of crime is patently wrong. It envisions a world where murder is done by evil cold-blooded psychopaths who can only be stopped by violence. Instead, the vast majority of murders are emotional crimes by one-off killers, the jilted lover who sees their obsession move on, the young men too proud to back down and lose face, the alcohol-induced stupidity. Most killers could be considered armed "good guys" up until the very moment they pull that trigger, and many would have continued to be "good guys" if they hadn't had a gun at that critical point. Guns allow snap decisions to kill, which is why all the countries that have seriously decided to reduce the number of guns have shown a decrease in murder rates: the most dedicated killers will still kill, but the common hot-blooded murder becomes a fist fight and a hangover.


2012 in economics, politics and science

Economists got it wrong again, but things are not as bad as they sound

The story of the economy in 2012 has been one of disappointment in the US and Europe, and continued good growth in the developed world (most notably Asia, but news from Africa has been better than ever). It is probably hard for those in rich countries to hear, but this is not such a bad thing. Rich countries do need to stagnate while developing countries catch up, and economic stability when there is low population growth is not really a bad thing, as long as economic equality is maintained.

From an Anglophone point of view, the biggest economic surprise must be the survival of the Euro. Economists in the UK and US have been predicting the end of the EU and the Euro almost since their creation. It seems to be ingrained in their consciousness that continental Europe must be doomed to failure, since (in their view) wealth can only come at the cost of quality of life. 2012 was hardly a great time for Europe, but the social safety net here at least aids those who suffer most during economic hard-times. Even the Economist, perpetually advocating a US-style economy, admits that the best place for a baby to be born in 2013 is in Europe. Taking into account the predicted economy in 2030 and various quality of life factors*, of the top 15 countries to be born into**, 9 are in Europe (the other 6 are Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan).

On the topic of things economists should be surprised at, it is the utter failure of austerity to either reduce debt or grow the economy. But economics appears to be the art of using poorly conceived metrics to make decisions on the future while ignoring history.

Real advances for progressive politics

2012 has to be considered a success for progressive politics, not so much for the results of individual elections (although Obama and Hollande were major wins for the left), but for the changes in progressive policy areas that are picking up steam. 2012 saw some major wins against homophobia. It really was not that long ago that homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness or criminal act, and now the debate has shifted to marriage equality. Just this change is an enormous win, it means that across the world (except Africa and the Middle East) conservatives have had to concede ground that has been decisively lost, and concentrate on enforcing the last few bastion of heterosexual privilage - marriage. And here, on our new front, progressives are decisively winning. In 2012, over 80 million people gained rights to marriage equality, across Europe (Denmark), North America (USA, Mexico) and South America (Brazil). This makes 2012 the best year ever for marriage equality, and all the signs point to 2013 being even better. I predict that this time next year, over half a billion people across the world will have access to marriage equality. The other major win for progressive politics in 2012 was the hint that the prohibition approach to drug policy may finally be on its way out. The "War on Drugs" has been a complete failure, damaging more lives than drugs do. This America policy has essentially been inflicted on the world through a series of international treaties, which bind most countries in the world to the American approach. Now this wrong-headed policy seems to becoming unravelled at the source, with over 50% of Americans supporting ending prohibition of marijuana. Half the states in the US have passed some form of progressive drug law, including Washington and Colorado becoming the first states to simply reverse prohibition. It will take a few years and a lot of effort for this sentiment to trickle up to the federal level, and decades more before the harm caused by this policy starts to become reversed on the international scene, but it looks like 2012 may be a turning point for sensible drug policy. 

Troubling signs for the future of science in the public sphere

It is fairly easy to pin-point some major scientific projects that came to fruition in 2012 - the Large Hadron Collider, ENCODE and Curiosity come to mind - but I am rather more pessimistic about the last year when it comes to scientific progress. To me, this is a year where scientists have been at best ignored in the public space (eg, the lack of progress on climate change in Doha and Rio), and at worst actively persecuted. Three examples from 2012 will suffice. Firstly, last year the CIA used a polio eradication campaign as part of their undercover operations to track Bin Laden in Pakistan. I said at the time that it was a stupid and short-sighted tactic to subvert medicine for political purposes, now the UN polio eradication campaign in Pakistan has had to be halted after 8 vaccination staff were killed. Why does polio still exist on the planet long after scientists cracked the secret to eradication? Because of distrust of medicine fueled by religion (the primary driver for low vaccination rates in Nigeria) and politics (Pakistan and Afghanistan). The second example is the well-known case of six Italian seismologists found guilty of multiple manslaughter and imprisoned for six years, simply because they did not predict the unpredictable. 300 people did die in the L’Aquila earthquake, but it is simply absurd to blame seismologists for stating that an earthquake was unlikely. This decision will cause Italian scientists to remove themselves from the public sphere, since any statistically valid statement they make could wind them up in jail. Third, a French court just found a psychiatrist guilty for a murder performed by one of her patients, on the grounds that she failed to identify the man as so dangerous he required institutionalisation. In retrospect, there were warning signs that the man could become dangerous, but the difficulty is that warning signs are much more common than violent behaviour. This ruling will only force psychiatrists to over-institutionalise people who do not need it, or to refuse to see those patients who need help the most because they don't want to be held responsible for any future actions by the patient. 

To me, despite the enormous scientific achievements in 2012, this adds up to a situation where the place of science in the public sphere is being threatened. Anti-scientific platforms are being advocated by major players, to the point where large segments of the public feel like they can just disregard the science on topics ranging from climate change and biodiversity to evolution and vaccination. I see science becoming a consumer item, where the public picks and chooses which scientific advances to consume and which to ignore based on a post-modern philosophy that their person opinion is just as valid as the scientific consensus. Add onto this a severe funding crunch that will echo for decades as it squeezes out many research programs, and 2012 was not a good year for science.

* To be precise, they estimated GDP/capita in 2030, life expectancy at birth, the quality of family life, political freedom, job security, climate, crime, community life, governance and gender equality. As always, the Economist deliberately screws up by using the average GDP/capita. If they want to consider the outcome for the average child born into a country they should be using the median GDP/capita, which would further advantage Europe. In addition, they do not consider the chance of being born into poverty as a separate variable, which clearly it is. Consider two rich countries, A and B, both with the same median income ($100,000/year) and average income ($158,000/year). In country A, there is a 50% chance of falling into the median income range, a 10% chance of being very rich ($1,000,000) and a 40% chance of being born into poverty ($20,000). In country B, there is a 90% chance of falling into the median income range, a 10% chance of being very rich ($680,000) and no chance of being born into poverty. Here, despite the same macro statistics, it would be better for a child to be born into country B, just for the reduced chance of falling into the bottom bracket.

** I picked 15 because Belgium is ranked number 15, the full list is here.



And Republicans wonder why they lose the non-white vote...

Somehow I don't think the Republican outreach program to non-white Americans is working...

Watch the head of the Republicans in Maine claim that African-American voters were shipped into the state to fraudently vote for Obama: 
In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day. Everybody has a right to vote, but nobody in town knows anyone who’s black. How did that happen? I don’t know. We’re going to find out….
Watch a Colorado Republican poll watcher suspect election fraud as African-Americans turn out to vote:
Yeah, a very high concentration of people of color. It’s not a problem, but, you know, when I go to the mall I see, you know this amount. Well I’m seeing at least double or triple that amount here. So what I’m saying is, it looks to me like this voting location was selected as the place they told everyone to come.
Watch Fox News discuss the Hispanic vote while showing stock film of illegal border crossings:

Everglades National Park

The most famous resident of the Everglades, the American alligator

Hatchling American alligator resting on a lillypad near its protective mother

Long swim to the next lillypad

The vast flood plains of the Everglades reminded me of Kakadu, although our crocodiles are much more intimidating than the American alligators!


Great Blue Heron

Great Egret in flight

American Black Vulture

Black vulture getting ready for arial battle

Great Blue Heron

Sunset over the Everglades



Race and the American election

Have the 2008 and 2012 election wins ushered in a new era for American race relations? After all, this is a "post-racial America", where a black man was voted President twice by a clear majority of citizens. Right?

No. Barack Obama won both elections for one reason only - demographic change. If it wasn't for demographic change, both McCain and Romney would have won landslides equal to that of Ronald Regan. Consider this - Obama lost the white vote by 20 points (60% Romney, 40% Obama). In 1980 this was the margin of loss by which Carter lost the white vote to Regan. The difference is just that in 1980 the white vote was 88% of the electorate, now it is only 72%. Obama badly lost the white vote (39%), but he overwhelmingly won the black (93%), hispanic (71%) and Asian (73%) votes. If you give Romney his 2012 results by race, but use the 1980 demographics, Romney would have won the election 53% to 45% - almost the same spread as Regan beat Carter (8 points vs 9 points). This is not to say there hasn't been enormous improvements in race relations in America, but the election of Barack Obama does not mean that race doesn't matter.

The Republicans need to be really, really scared. The white vote is just going to decrease in every election from now on. In 2011 white babies were a slight minority in America - using the demographics of the 2011 birth cohort, Obama would have won 59% of the vote. This is going to be a slow process, but unless the Republicans stop their race hatred they are simply doomed. Actually, I'll go a little bit further: they need to stop their race hatred, their homophobia, their Christian supremacy ideas and their misogyny. Among people who identified as LGBT, 90% voted for Obama. Among the non-religious, Obama won 70% of the vote. Among women, Obama won 55% of the vote (although he lost white women). Every growing demographic is being alienated by the Republicans - whether they are Black, Hispanic, Asian, LGBT or atheist. The only groups that the Republicans can really rely on are white men (62% voted Romney) and the highly religious (59% of weekly Church-goers voted Romney). That is a dying demographic, and the Republicans need to wake up and realise that from now on, America is a pluristic society.

Finally, the election result that may have the most profound, long-lasting impact on politics in America: Puerto Rico just voted for Statehood (61%). Now a petition for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of America will go before Congress, and once it is accepted (I assume the Republicans try to block it for awhile), Puerto Rico will become a proper State. This will be huge. For the first time, ~4 million American citizens will get to vote in Federal elections, having 2 Senators, 5 Representatives and 7 Presidential Electors. For the first time ever, a new state will be accepted into the Union that is non-white (all other states were not accepted until they were majority white, even if now a few have become minority-majority). For the first time ever, there will be an officially bilingual state in the US (Spanish/English). The new America is evolving, and it is going to look more diverse, more multicultural and more mutually respectful.


Is it any wonder the American elections are so absurd?

Tomorrow around 130 million Americans are going to vote for President, as they do on the first Tuesday of November every 4 years. Or, to be more accurate, in 50 states less than 50% of American citizens* will vote for members of an antiquated electoral college ("electors"), who will meet two months later and make the actual vote that matters - who is the next President of the United States**.  

Despite all the structural problems making the American elections the least democratic of any developed nation, and despite the Citizens United ruling, which defines spending money as freedom of speech, opening the floodgates for billionaires to buy elections, probably the biggest screw-up with the American elections is the mentality of the average US citizen***. Right now I'm in Florida, a key swing state****. This is the front page on the newspaper at the supermarket counter:

Look, it's not that hard to get the facts straight. Obama is not a communist, not a secret muslim, was not born in Kenya and did not sell cocaine at school. He is a very risk-adverse, somewhat disappointing, President, who prefers administrative changes over legislation and is better at policy wonk stuff than actually engaging the American public. What you'll get from Obama in the next four years is pretty much what you got in the past four - a standard centralist who would rather do incremental change than radically modify the American consensus (unfortunately). And Romney? Okay, he actually is a Mormon, but that is not much more stupid than Obama's Christianity. And he isn't covering up any sex crimes or any such rubbish. What you'll get from Romney is pretty much a smarter version of what you got from Bush - some foreign policy blunders that matter a lot if you live in the Middle East and tax cuts to the rich. If you are in the top 10% of income earners and don't care about the bottom 90%, it is rational to vote for Romney; if not, it is rational to vote for Obama. Not that either of them will fix America, but the "least bad candidate" is the norm in America.

Oh, and just to go on the record for my predictions - tomorrow Obama will win the Presidency, with a comfortable win in the electoral college and a narrow 1.5% win in the popular vote. The Senate won't change in its final numbers (a big win for Democrats*****) and Republicans will narrowly win the House, but by fewer than 10 seats, cutting their margin substantially. 


*25% can vote but won't, either because they don't want to or because they can't make it to the polls on Tuesday, 25% are not allowed to vote because they are too young, 4.5 million citizens are disqualified because they live in a territory rather than a state, 5.3 million citizens cannot vote because they have been convicted of a felony in the past (depending on which state they live in), and millions more cannot vote because they are homeless and can't prove residency. The 20 million permanent residents can't vote. If you are keeping tabs, around 100 million US residents (35% of the total) are not allowed to vote.

**Depending on the state they are from, some electors have to vote for who won their state, while others can vote for whoever they like. And if it is a tie, the House will vote for President (not directly, the delegates from each state have to agree to cast one vote) and the Senate will vote for Vice-President. 

***My apologies to my US friends, but let's face it, you are not average!

****Swing states are the only states that actually matter in Presidental elections. Essentially, this is Ohio and Florida - win both and you are President, win only one and then a handful of other states count.

*****Senate elections are held every two years, but the terms are for six years, so only a third of the Senate is up for election each time. 2006 was an exceptional year for the Democrats, so maintaining the numbers in the "class of 2006" would be a major victory for the Democrats in 2012.