Sunday, 23 December 2012

Cajones for Congress?

Does Fareed Zakaria's support in the Washington Post and on CNN for effective gun regulation indicate we can hope the US will get sensible about guns?

The US has 30 times more gun homicides per capita than Australia, France and England & Wales, twelve times the average for other developed countries.

A child in the US is 42.7 times more likely to die from gun violence than in other OECD countries.

If that were mainly because the US is intrinsically violent, the US would have ten or twenty or thirty times higher rates of robbery, rape and assault. It doesn't. US rates of other violent crimes are comparable to rates in other developed countries.

If it were because of violence in pop culture, other countries with similar pop culture violence, like the US and Australia and Japan, would have gun homicide rates like the US's. They don't. Japanese kids love violent video games, and Japan's gun homicide rate is near zero.

If it were because the US has more crazy people, epidemiologists would find ten or twenty or thirty times more psychosis and sociopathy in the US than in Britain, Australia, France and other comparable countries. They don't. Rates of serious mental are comparable, and psychiatric care is better in the US than in many of those countries with much lower gun death rates.

The difference is gun ownership. The US has more guns than adults. It has 5% of the world's population but 50% of the world's guns. 

In the ten years after Australia banned all automatic and semiautomatic weapons in 1996, their gun homicide rate dropped nearly three-fifths and their gun suicide rate dropped nearly two-thirds.

As Zakaria says, the solution's blindingly obvious: regulate guns, ban assault weapons. He thinks the US problem is lack of courage. 

To solve this problem, courage is needed in just one place, the US congress, where so many legislators are afraid of losing the NRA's approval and bribes.

It'd be lovely to imagine that those cowards are about to grow some cajones. Dare we hope?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

USA, pervasively corrupt

The US has 751 people per 100,000 in prison. 

That's the highest incarceration rate in the world, five times the rate in England, eight times the rate in Germany, 12 times the rate in Japan. Yet the US mostly refuses to prosecute financial criminals like those whose malfeasance brought on the 2008 financial crash, and like the HSBC executives who for decades laundered money for Al Qaida terrorists. 

Why? Those financial institutions and their executives are big-time political donors, and they're big-time practitioners of the bribery that largely controls legislation in the US, and so heavily influences other government action here.

On 13 December a disturbed man attacked 20 or more young pupils and at least one adult in an elementary school. 

A day later, another disturbed man attacked 20 or more young pupils and at least one adult in another elementary school.

Every victim of the first attack is still alive. Twenty-six victims of the second attack, twenty of them six or seven years old, died.

What was the difference? The first attacker was in Chengping China and had only a knife. The Sandy Hook attacker brought a semi-automatic assault rifle and two handguns. 

Guns do kill. All over the world, people in democracies understand that. They've sensibly persuaded their governments to protect them from guns. 

Even a few undemocratic governments understand that.

Not in the USA. Why? Because 5,400 US gun manufacturers make huge profits on gun sales, $13.6 billion in 2011, and nothing stops them from shovelling enough of that money to the NRA, and directly to politicians, to buy obstruction of effective gun control.

Is this corruption specific to finance and guns? No. It also pervades the US prison industry, the US pharmaceutical industry, the US health insurance industry, the US energy industry, US defence industries and the US media.

You're expecting Sandy Hook to trigger a big change in gun control in the US? 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Laurier LaPierre, R.I.P.

Today one of Canada's greatest citizens passed away at the age of 83. He was most famous as the co-host of the ground-breaking CBC-TV program This Hour Has Seven Days, but he was much more than that. A journalist, a teacher, a high-school principal, the first openly gay member of the Canadian Senate, and one of the few broadcasters in the history of the CBC ever to be fired (along with his co-host, Patrick Watson), Mr. LaPierre infuriated his bosses at the CBC and simultaneously won the hearts of the Canadian public from coast to coast to coast.

This Hour made television history, and not only in Canada. Its influence spread around the world, and it served as the model for television journalism worldwide. Its most obvious descendant, in American terms, was 60 Minutes, which although nowhere near as sharp and confrontational, in its own sphere also pushed the envelope. Laurier (one cannot help but call him by his first name, he had that kind of relationship with his audience -- one of intimacy, of empathy, and of absolute fearlessness when dealing with powerful politicians.

In one of his most famous and provocative interviews, with the mother of Stephen Truscott, who was found guilty of the rape and murder of his classmate and sentenced to be hanged -- at the age of 14. A year later, Truscott's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 2001, Truscott filed for a judicial review of his conviction. In 2007, after examining more than 250 pieces of evidence, the Ontario Court of Appeal declared his conviction a miscarriage of justice, and acquitted Truscott of the murder. During the interview with Truscott's mother, Laurier was seen to shed a tear, and this perhaps more than any other action sealed Laurier's fate with the CBC.

He so enraged CBC executives at the time that they not only fired Laurier and co-host Patrick Watson, but they also cancelled the show itself, as if determined to eradicate all traces not only of LaPierre and Watson, but of the program itself. This action inspired a nationwide protest the likes of which neither CBC nor Canada at large had ever seen.

Since then, a number of documentaries and books have been published describing the program, its influence and its wars. In its wake have come a number of vaguely similar shows (CBC's The Fifth Estate and Marketplace, CTV's W5, and others), but none have had the same impact as This Hour. It galvanized the nation, and no other journalistic program has ever gathered more viewers. It was almost as if it were a National Hockey League broadcast. Millions of Canadians gathered around the tube once a week, with a palpable aura of excitement.

As a Senator, Laurier continued in his fearless ways. He was a joy to behold, and he will never be forgotten -- even, and perhaps especially by, his enemies. He will be missed by a grateful nation.

Worse than we knew

Since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, the US has had 31 school shootings. The rest of the world has had less than half that many, 14. To explore the details visit here and scroll down to the interactive map.

More than twice as many as the rest of the world put together is worse than we knew. But you're telling yourself, these violence statistics are just black swans, weird outliers---the US is still one of the greatest countries in the world, right?

Think again. Edward Fullbrook, editor of Real World Economics Review, has published a wee ebook tabulating how the US compares with 29 other OECD countries on 56 measures of personal, social, economic and political life.

On eight health measures, the US ranks an average of 28th of 30. 

On healthy life expectancy from birth, the US ranks 24th of 30. Its citizens can expect six fewer years of healthy life than the citizens of Japan, five less than citizens of Switzerland, four less than citizens of Sweden, Iceland, Italy, Australia and Spain.

Its infant mortality rate is 25th worst of 30, 2½ times higher than Sweden's. Its obesity rate is worst of all OECD countries, eleven times higher than South Korea, eight times higher than Japan, four times higher than Switzerland and Norway. 

Well maybe, you say. But it's still a great place to live, isn't it? On eight family life measures the US is dead last. 

Its teenage pregnancy rate is 23 times higher than that of South Korea, eleven times that of Japan, nine times higher than The Netherlands and Switzerland. On paid maternity, Denmark guarantees 100% of annual wages, Norway 86%, Germany 84%, Sweden 82%, The US provides 0%; no other OECD country is that stingy. The US child poverty rate is second worst, 22%, nine times that of Denmark, eight times that of Finland, five times that of Sweden. Its divorce rate is worst, four times that of Mexico Italy and Ireland, twice Canada's rate.

But you say, at least it's a leading democracy! On freedom and democracy the US is also dead last.

It's worst in voter turnout. It's also worst by a huge margin in prisoners per capita---the US incarceration rate is 77 times that of Iceland, twelve times that of Ireland and Norway, ten times that of Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden. It's near worst in percent of parliamentarians who are women, press freedom, and collective bargaining coverage

But surely with its emphasis on law and order, the US is a shining example of public order and safety? On public order and safety, the US is also dead last.

I've written about homicide and gun ownership rates. In HIV infection rate and cocaine abuse the US ranks worst. Its robbery rate is one of the worst, 31 times higher than Japan, fifteen times higher than South Korea and France. Road fatality rate and percent of lifetime lost to injury are near worst. 

Well, you say, at least the US is one of the most generous countries? On generosity the US also ranks dead last.

On NGO and public tsunami relief pledges, the US is middle of the table; Norwegians and Swiss give eight times more per capita. On government foreign aid, asylum seekers accepted per capita, greenhouse gas emissions per capita, efforts to reduce exploitation of the global commons and ecological footprint, the US is near the bottom, and on net development assistance as percent of gross national income, the US is dead last.

Well at least don't Americans enjoy a nice life? On income and leisure the US ranks 27th of 30.

It's 7th of 30 in GDP per hour worked, 12th in ratio of female to male income, but worst or near worst in hours worked, share of income received by the poorest 20%, income inequality and vacation days per year.

Only in education does the US escape the bottom ranks.

It's in the middle of the table on high school and university enrolment, student reading and scientific literacy; near the bottom in problem solving, math literacy, and in percent of college grads working in scientific and engineering jobs.

The statistics on violence and guns in the US aren't black swans. They look more like indicators of social and political disintegration, due to forty years of neoliberalism and plutonomy.

Mass Murders and Shooting Sprees in USA

There's a thought-provoking piece on the Mother Jones web site. It includes a map, a portion of which is depicted below:

The original map image depicts the entire nation, and further, if you hover your mouse over the various dots, a pop-up provides additional information about each incident.
I urge you to visit the original article and map:
Mass Murders and Shooting Sprees in the USA.
If Friday's horrific incident is not enough to provoke some serious debate about gun-control in the United States, it's difficult to say what is.
The irony of the situation is that statistically speaking, violent crime has never been lower in the United States. People have never been safer than now. Unfortunately, they do not feel safe, and therefore they feel the need to possess arms -- in case something like this happens to them. The facts, however, speak otherwise. In all these violent incidents, there has been only one occurrence in which a bystander shot the assailant. And even in this case, the facts bear closer scrutiny. What actually happened was this: the assailant escaped the scene on a bicycle; the citizen chased him with his car, knocked him down, and then departed his vehicle and shot the perpetrator. In sum, this is hardly a justification for his possession of the weapon; the vehicle was more than enough.
The standard (one might almost say knee-jerk) justification for the right of an American citizen to possess an assault weapon is the Second Amendment. But even this occurs in more than one version (one version was passed by Congress, another was ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State). The differences are minimal, having to do with capitalization of certain words, but they do have one thing in common: they are almost always cited in part and/or out of context. Here is the version that Jefferson authenticated:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
One might first of all point out that this "right" should be understood in the context of a militia. That would have been my own interpretation. However, in 2008 the United States Supreme Court ruled (District of Columbia v Heller 554 US 570) that the right to keep and bear arms does not depend upon one's membership in a militia, and that the right extends to the use of said firearm for lawful purposes, including defense of one's home.
President Obama has sworn "to do everything in my power to prevent these senseless acts from ever occurring again." The real question, I suppose, is How much power does he have?
As David Frum, well-known conservative thinker and former presidential speechwriter, phrased it, "The real problem is to keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people." Mr. Frum is perhaps being realistic. A general ban on firearms in the United States is simply a non-starter; perhaps he is right to begin with a ban on automatic and even semi-automatic weapons.
Such a ban would demand the surrender of all such weapons to law enforcement agencies, and further that anyone found in possession of such a weapon be subject to an automatic term in prison.
I would also argue for the imprinting of all firearms with a non-removable identification number, which shall appear on every bill of sale of said weapon. This would enable the tracking of each and every weapon from the factory in which it was manufactured through all its middle-men, all the way to the household cabinet in which it ultimately is stored. Obviously, this will do nothing about all the millions of weapons already in the hands of the public, but it is a start.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Violence in the US

Is the US more violent than other developed countries? Here are assault deaths per 100,000 in the US (blue) and in other OECD countries excluding Estonia and Mexico (red) from 1960 through 2010 ...
(To enlarge the chart, click on it. To return, click outside the enlarged chart.)

On the whole, US violence is comparable to that in 16th and 17th century Europe. What parts of the US are most violent? From 1998 through 2010, the South, by a longshot ...

How do US regions compare with those OECD countries?

How about the "race" of the victim?

What's the relationship with wealth and poverty? Not so strong ...

Do states that control gun ownership have less gun violence? On the whole yes ...

What are the biggest positive correlates of high gun death rates in US states? McCain's vote share in 2008, high poverty rates, a big working class, guns allowed in high schools ...

What are the biggest negative correlates? The proportion of college graduates, Obama's vote share in 2008, and gun control legislation.

Gun advocates are wrong

They say more will guns protect us from homicide.

If more guns protected us from homicide, states and countries with more gun ownership and less gun control would have lower gun homicide rates.

The opposite is the case. Harvard studies found that even when you control for poverty, urbanisation and age, there is more gun homicide where there is more gun ownership. 

There are more gun homicides and overall homicides in US states with more gun ownership. That holds for men and women and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanisation, alcohol consumption, and poverty. 

Similar findings hold for high-income countries across the world.

Contrary to claims by gun advocates, Israel is not an example of a country where high gun ownership reduces gun homicide. The US has about 89 guns per 100 people. Israel has about 7 guns per 100 people. Israel severely limits who can own a gun. 

Neither is Switzerland. It has about half as many guns per capita as the US. Everyone serves in the army, and cantons used to let people keep guns at home, but they're moving these guns to depots.

None of this is secret knowledge ...

1. Hepburn L, Hemenway D, Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. 2004; 9:417-40. 

2. Miller M, Azrael D, Hemenway D, Household firearm ownership levels and homicide rates across U.S. regions and states, 1988-1997. American Journal of Public Health. 2002: 92:1988-1993

3. Miller, M, Azrael D, Hemenway D, State-level homicide victimization rates in the U.S. in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003. Social Science and Medicine. 2007; 64:656-64.

4. Hemenway D, Miller M, Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries. Journal of Trauma. 2000; 49:985-88.

5. Florida R, The geography of gun deaths,

Friday, 14 December 2012

Save the children. From our guns.

There are 2 to 100 times more gun murders and suicides per capita in the US than in other developed countries. 

You could argue that if US adults are crazy enough to elect politicians who are in the pocket of the gun lobby, if they're crazy enough to elect them over and over again, maybe they deserve their bloody fates.

But a child living in the US is 42 times more likely to die from gun violence than a child living in other developed countries.

Nobody has the right to do that to children.

Starting with the Appeaser-in-Chief, US politicians and pundits have already resumed the chant, "Now is not the time to debate gun control". 

This is exactly the time. 

Eliot Spitzer said it best:
There's the old line, now is not the time to talk politics. Let's be clear. Silence is politics. Silence is cowardice. Silence is acquiescence. Silence is what the NRA wants. Those who are silent should be thrown out of politics ... If you are silent, you are a coward. 
The biggest terrorist menace in the US is the NRA. Now isn't the time to be a coward.

P.S. To get a little closer to the 20 kids and six teachers killed at Sandy Hook, goto and scroll down to the slideshow.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Pandit Ravi Shankar, R.I.P.

Like many of the hippie generation, I became interested in Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music generally as a direct result of hearing George Harrison play the sitar on "Norwegian Wood" and "Within You Without You". It's fair to say that these songs changed my musical life.
Before long, I was an avid fan of the music, and specifically, of the tabla (the drums that accompany most classical Indian performers such as Ravi Shankar). Eventually, I found a tabla instructor in Toronto, and became a student of  tabla, studying for several years with Ritesh Das, founder of The Toronto Tabla Ensemble. I even dedicated my first book to Zakir Hussain, the master tabla player whose father was the inestimable Alla Rakha, almost always the tabla player who accompanied Ravi Shankar.
One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was in New York City, and featured several of the leading stars of Indian music -- Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Shivkumar Sharma (santoor), Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute) and Alla Rakha. As the years passed, I soon came to love the music of other players such as G.S. Sachdev (flute) and Swapan Chaduri (tabla).
Classical Indian music remains one of my greatest loves. I have a couple of hundred CDs and have attended close to that many concerts. I owe all of this to Pandit Ravi Shankar. He will be missed.