Monday, February 4, 2013

(No.229) Life, death & elections: some interesting numbers

"Life, death and elections: some interesting numbers"

by Alastair Rickard

Several months ago I wrote a column about the American presidential election and the excessive media reliance on political polling which was frequently inaccurate, a notable exception to which was the analysis of Nate Silver for The New York Times (see "U.S. election coverage: entertainment vs information", column No.219 posted to on Nov.13, 2012).

The exact voting results of the Nov. 2012 U.S. presidential election have continued to change. In addition to President Obama's overwhelming 332 to 206 electoral college victory over Mitt Romney, his popular vote has been steadily increasing as several states have completed their official counts.

Obama's margin of victory has increased from 2.3% (50.4% to 49.1%) to 3.8% (51.1% to 47.2%). In part this gradual increase for Obama is because so many ballots of Obama voters were challenged at a state level by his opponents.

It is now clear that nationally the President won 65.9 million votes while Republican Mitt Romney took 60.9 million. Obama is the first president to win 51% of the popular vote in two elections since Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 and the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt in four consecutive presidential elections.

Nate Silver, whose predictions of an Obama win were derided by some in the media -- especially by Republicans and their media cheerleaders, predicted every state correctly in the Nov. 2012 election. He had been  wrong about only one state in predicting the 2008 results.


There was a time when there seemed no shortage of people on the left side of Canada's chattering classes willing, even eager to defend the regime in Communist China and hold public chats lionizing Norman Bethune. I recall many years ago visiting a Bethune historic home in Ontario made into a sort of shrine to his 1930s activity with Mao's army. I referred en passant in the hearing of the guide to "Red China" and received a verbal 'tut tut".

For reasons I will not dwell upon here there has never seemed to be all that much interest in Canada in lumping Mao Zedong in the same league as Hitler and Stalin when it comes to having presided over the deaths of millions. But, quite apart from those many Chinese who were killed for reasons of ideology, he caused many millions more deaths from starvation as the result of his policies. Several studies published in recent years have detailed this (e.g., Frank Dikotter's "Mao's great famine: the history of China's most devastating catastrophe, 1958-62" (2011); Yang Jisheng's "Tombstone: the untold story of Mao's great famine" (2012).

The reference here is to Mao's so-called Great Leap Forward, a policy and program of his regime that resulted in the worst man-made calamity of modern times. Between early 1958 and the spring of 1961, between 30 and 45 million Chinese died.  This total dwarfed, for example, the estimated total of those in the Ukraine who, because of Stalin's deliberate policy in the early 1930s, starved to death. Estimates of the total of the starvation deaths in the Ukraine disagree but there were at least 3 to 3.5 million.


I think many schools in the U.S. are better at teaching students about their country's history than most schools in Canada are theirs. We have for many years now been turning out generations of graduates who are, in terms of this country's history and civics, mostly illiterate. Even those provinces that still require a high school graduate to have taken only one history course customarily offer only a socially 'relevant' stew dubbed something like 'social studies' or some such masquerading as a genuine history course.

Unfortunately to say this about Canada is to damn our American neighbours with faint praise.

For example, I suspect few Americans know much that is accurate about their country's war of aggression against Mexico in the 1840s or that this war actually had the second highest casualty rate of any U.S. war: 17% of American soldiers died in the Mexican War. The highest American casualty rate: the latest estimate by a demographic historian suggests that the total number of American Civil War dead (1860-65) was probably about 750,000 or approximately 25%.

See Amy S. Greenberg, "A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US. invasion of Mexico (2012); and J.David Hacker, "A Census-based Count of the Civil War Dead," Civil War History, Vol.57, No.4 (Dec2011).


In the First World War (1914-1918) Canada with a population of only 7.2 million people suffered military deaths of 66,876; that total is increased to 66,546 if Newfoundland's 1570 deaths are included.

By comparison the military death toll of the United Kingdom was almost 900,000; France 1.4 million. The United States, which had a population of 92 million and did not enter the war until 1917, had military deaths of 116,708 being 0.13% of the American population. Canada's military death were 0.92% of its population.

I remember as a boy being told a story about some sort of victory parade in Washington to celebrate (so that anecdote went in the Ontario of my youth) the 'American victory' in the Great War. A small Canadian contingent was said to have been allowed to march near the end of the procession. It carried a banner on which were the words "Canada helped".

I think this story, almost certainly apocryphal, indicates the contemporary irony and even resentment with which some older Canadians in my youth, especially those of United Empire Loyalist heritage, regarded American participation in the Great War.


There are academically respectable historians who argue persuasively that the main reason the Allies defeated the Germans in World War II was the Soviet Union: i.e., Hitler's huge mistake in undertaking the invasion of Russia in June 1941 and the expenditure of millions of Russian lives (as well as German)  absorbing German war efforts and bleeding the German army and its resources which, along with the Soviet army's own huge war effort on the eastern front, enabled a successful Allied counter-invasion starting in Normandy.

Between 1941 and 1945 25-30 million people in the Soviet Union died in the war. The Second World War killed 40% of men between the ages of 20 and 49 and 15% of women in the same age group, removing a major part of the country's child-producing population.

This staggering loss is one of the major factors that has produced today's population crisis in Russia. Since 1992 deaths have exceeded births by a cumulative total of 13 million. The country's population declined by 6.4 million between 1991 and 2009.

Russia is still the 9th most populous country in the world with 143 million (2010) but the population is projected to drop further -- to 136 million by 2030 and 126 million by 2050. From the 4th most populous country in 1950 it is projected that Russia will have dropped to 18th by 2050.

Think about this Russian population crisis, rarely menitioned in the western media, as background and context the next time you read about President Putin's latest efforts to restore Russia to its former 'glory'.




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