The elephant in the room: violence in (and out) of the U.S.A.

I have been following the elections very closely, and am struck that there is a series of related issues that have not become part of the political debate, mostly related to the U.S.A. and violence. It is striking, since this is an area where the U.S.A. is an outlier, an anomaly among developed countries. I am fascinated that military spending, incarceration rates and violent crime are not more of an issue. Together, they point to a culture that has institutionalized violence as a way of responding to external and internal problems.

Starting with military expenditure, the U.S. currently spends about 54% of the federal budget (excluding Social Security and other trusts) on military, or military-related expenditures. Now, that figure is debatable, especially the $390bn of interest on debt incurred through military spending. However, take that and the Veteran’s Administration budget out, and you still have a clear 36% of the budget going to the military. That is more than the sum of the next 15 countries military spending combined, to fight what are basically guerilla insurgencies – not major wars. The U.S., with 21% of the world’s GDP, represents 47% of the world’s military spending.

This is problematic, to say the least. As Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech (Part 1, Part 2), the creation of a “military-industrial complex” in times of peace can lead to a situation in which military responses take primacy over diplomatic solutions, even when unwarranted.

In terms of incarceration rates, the U.S. once again stands out, with 2.3 million people behind bars (that’s 50% of the world total). China, with 4 times the population, comes in second, at 1.6 million prisoners. Most of the spread between the U.S. prison figures and developed country averages comes from the disproportionately high rate of imprisonment for black males. The existence of a “prison-industrial” complex, built around privately-owned and operated prisons, provides a huge incentive for the growth of the prison population, at the expense of a relatively poor and disenfranchised population.

This implies that U.S. citizens are either more criminal than people in the rest of the world, or that they tend to get imprisoned with much higher frequency. Since the overall U.S. crime rate is mostly comparable to the rest of the world, and has in fact been decreasing, the huge increase in the prison population must have another explanation. Superficially, a least, you need not go far to find this: a combination of mandatory sentencing rules and the war on drugs seems to account for a lot. However, this does not explain the massive racial disparity, or the reason why such judicial harshness was sought, especially with regard to drugs.

In most other ways, the U.S. is statistically comparable to other countries: GDP (21% of world) is comparable to energy consumption (25% of world), population is comparable to employment, etc. But in these two measures (military spending and incarceration), the U.S. is wildly out of line: 47% of the world’s military spending and 50% of the world’s prisoners, in a country with rougly 5% of the world’s population?

I suspect the corrupting influence of a philosophy that problems can be solved through the application of coercive violence, either against other countries, or against ethnic populations within the country, driven by a diabolical combination of political ideology and economic incentives.

For all the reforms proposed by Barack Obama (and to a lesser extent, John McCain), the U.S. can’t really move forward without addresssing these two elephants in the room. Health care, education, infrastructure: all of these can be paid for without tax increases, simply by bringing military expenditures into line with the rest of the world, and by trying to make 2.3 million inmates productive members of society. The rest of the world seems to be capable of it – why not the U.S.?

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