Sunday, March 24, 2013

(No.234) US gun control, heath care bankruptcies & other interesting numbers

" U.S. gun control, health care bankruptcies and some other interesting numbers"

by Alastair Rickard

Another statistic for those who think President Obama's reforms (albeit incomplete) to the American health care system were needed and  will contribute over time to a significant upgrading of the system: a recent study showed that out of a sample of 2300+ bankruptcy filers in the U.S., 60% of them were caused at least in part by medical illness.


There is no shortage of statistics measuring global inequality. For example:
-- the top 0.5% of the world population owns 35.6% of global wealth while the bottom 68.4% own 4.2%;
-- the wealth of the world's 3 richest people is equal to the combined GDP of the 48 poorest countries;
-- the richest thousand billionaires are worth more than the 1 1/2 billion of the world's poorest people
[see Mathias Risse, "On Global Justice" (2012)]


With 760 members the British House of Lords is the second largest legislature in the world after the National People's Congress of China. The 'reform' by the Labour government in 1999 of the House of Lords did not, as many people mistakenly believe, remove all hereditary peers. It allowed 92 of the 759 hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords along with the hundreds of appointed 'life peers'. The appointment of life peers by the government of the day reminds one of the process of appointment of Canadian senators.

The understanding was that this arrangement to retain some seats for hereditary peers  would remain in place until some future government implemented a second stage of House of Lords reform. The 92 peers are themselves allowed to replace from the pool of hereditary peers cast out in 1999 any one of their number (i.e., of the 92) in the event of their death. This strange election has happened 17 times since 1999: the candidates are aristocrats and the electors are aristocratic legislators.

Over 3 million non-Germans fought alongside Hitler's soldiers during World War II. In Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, they made up 25% of the troops. They were invaluable to the German army's war effort in holding and 'pacifying' areas behind the front lines. It has been argued that without them Hitler's armies would not have achieved the military successes they did. [see Rolf-Dieter Muller, "The Unknown Eastern Front: The Wehrmacht and Hitler's foreign soldiers" (2012) ].


The political debate rages on in the U.S. over the relatively modest gun control measures (e.g., universal background checks on purchasers of firearms) that the Obama administration would like to see legislated in the wake of the multiple mass shootings in the U.S. in the last few years.

Not much seems likely to improve given the power of the pro-gun lobby and the political spinelessness of a majority of U.S. legislators when it comes to advancing gun control measures in that country. Just recently Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate Democratic majority leader, has indicated that he will not even bring forward for a vote in the Senate a ban on assault rifles, the weapon of choice for mass murderers.

Canadians are accustomed to seeing comparisons of gun deaths in our own country with the massive numbers in the U.S. but here is a different one involving the U.K. where gun control is even stricter than in Canada:

in the United Kingdom in 2009 there were only 39 gun-related deaths while in the U.S. there were more than 9,000. So, the U.S. with 5 times as many people as the U.K. had more than 230 times the number of gun deaths.


Between 1840 and 1914 Ireland emptied itself of half its population. Perhaps a million died because of the so-called potato famine but most left Ireland to find a better life elsewhere. Although North America was the favourite destination (Canada as well as the U.S.) more than 300,000 Irish went to Australia. By 1914 Australia was the most ethnically Irish country in the world except for Ireland itself.


In the modern era there have been two British Prime Ministers who led the government after having been seriously wounded in wartime action:

(1) Clement Attlee, Labour PM from 1945-51, was an officer in World War I and was the second to last soldier evacuated from Gallipoli. He was later seriously wounded in the Mesopotamian Campaign.
(2) Harold Macmillan, Conservative PM from 1957-63, also an officer, was wounded 5 times while fighting on the Western Front; in 1916 , while on reconnaissance, he was nearly killed by a bullet to his pelvis. He survived by rolling into a shell hole in no-man's land where he kept his spirits up by scanning a copy of plays by the ancient Greek Aeschylus he had carried into battle in his pocket.

Three living male members of the British Royal Family have had active service in wartime:
(1) Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as a Royal Navy officer in the Mediterranean and the Pacific during World War II, including the Battle of Crete;
(2) Prince Andrew, Duke of York, as a helicopter pilot during the Falklands War; and
(3) Prince Henry of Wales (Prince Harry) in Afghanistan, first as a forward air controller in Helmand Province and a second tour as a machine gunner and co-pilot in an Apache Helicopter.


As Canadian-born Conrad Black experienced after having been charged by federal government prosecutors in the U.S., the American justice system is seriously tilted in favour of the prosecution. Black was charged with 13 counts and ended up convicted of just one (and that highly dubious) after he had spent years and millions of dollars fighting the charges, a battle which included a trip all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has been scathing in his comments about the American judicial system (see his account of the experience in his 2011 book "A Matter of Principle").

Those who think Black was too harsh in his comments about American justice should read the recently published "The Collapse of American Criminal Justice" by William J. Stuntz (Harvard University Press).

One learns, inter alia, that the core problem with the American system is the massive and unrestrained power of police and prosecutors. Over the past 40 years criminal law in the U.S. has become all-encompassing: there are now 40,000 federal criminal offences. Instead of restraining officials U.S. criminal law provides then with an extensive battery of weapons they can use as they see fit.

The vast majority of those charged give in to prosecutors' pressure by agreeing to a plea bargain and a lesser sentence (Black refused to do this); 95% of all felony convictions now result from a guilty plea. Most of the time the defendant has his or her fate decided not by a jury of peers but by powerful officials with virtually unchecked discretion.




previous columns/blog archive: to access previous columns on go to
the blog archive links which appear chronologically in the margin beside each column as
it appears on the RickardsRead website -- and use the links

to set up a "Google alert" in order to receive automatic notice of new columns as they are
posted on RickardsRead,com, go to: