Map: American Foreign Aid

Many Americans believe U.S. foreign aid is ineffective and fails o reach the people that need it most. Unfortunately, the following map from HowMuch.net, courtesy of Vox.com, validates this criticism by revealing that the vast majority of government aid largely bypasses the world’s neediest countries:

Note that while this is based on 2014 data, official aid policy hasn’t really changed.

Israel is clearly the biggest recipient by a large margin, despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, followed by Egypt and Jordan, which, while middle income countries, have their aid mostly contingent on their peace treaties with Israel. Many of the top recipients are not among the poorest countries in the world, and although Afghanistan and Pakistan are impoverished, their aid is also mostly tied up with foreign policy objectives (e.g. the War on Terror).

Beyond the Presidency

Remember that no matter who becomes president of the U.S., there is more to our political system than the person occupying the Oval Office. While the executive branch is indeed important and powerful, the federal system allocates a lot of power to Congress and the states: governors, attorney generals, state representatives, judges, etc. — as well as city and county officials — all play crucial roles in our lives.

Many of the great changes in history — the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement — first emerged and succeeded at the local and state levels. These are the incubators in which new policies and ideas are tested. These are where many nationally prominent politicians and reformers often get their start. Continue reading

Maine Votes on an Alternative to the Two-Party System

Outside of Stephen King novels, Maine does not figure prominently in the American psyche. (No offense Mainers, your state is beautiful and relatively well governed, so maybe the lack of any attention speaks to its quiet success.) But the New England state of 1.3 million has an intriguing initiative on the ballot that might offer a well needed shake up of the flawed and increasingly maligned two-party system that currently prevails. At a time when cynicism towards the U.S. political process has perhaps never been better, this idea is worth looking into. Continue reading

The Problem With Lotteries

Like most Americans, I never gave much thought to lotteries. They were just an amusing, unlikely way to get rich at the cost of a only few bucks and some minutes filling out tickets.

But as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, lotteries are big business in the U.S., and can very well be considered an industry in their own right. Consider the following chart based on data from the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries (they’ve got an organization for everything these days). As of 2014, Americans nationwide spent more on lotteries than on all other forms of entertainment combined. Continue reading

Americans Continue to Value Libraries — Despite Looming Cuts

Libraries are at the forefront of the America’s post-recession trend of austerity and public service cuts. But a recent Pew poll reported in Smithsonian Magazine found an overwhelming consensus that libraries are not only valuable, but should supported and expanded: Continue reading

Map: Lynchings in the Southern U.S. (1877-1950)

One of the most insidious and terrorizing elements of racism and white supremacy in the United States was lynching, broadly defined as an extrajudicial public execution carried out by a mob against an alleged criminal or transgressor. In most cases, the intention was not simply to mete out supposed justice in place of a court of law — not that the legal system in much of the South was any fairer or more impartial — but to enforce social control against particular groups, especially African Americans.

Montgomery, Alabama, which was the center of some of the worst racist atrocities and policies, will soon host one of the nation’s first and largest memorials to lynching, immortalizing the thousands of victims of racially motivated lynchings. (Appropriately, it will sit on the highest spot in the city, which was once the first capital of the Confederacy.)

The organization behind this effort, Equal Justice Initiative, has also put together a map of all the racial lynchings that took place across a  73-year period spanning the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  Continue reading

Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.

 

U.S. Taxes in Charts

Few things animate Americans more than taxes. As it is now cliche to point out, it was matters of taxation that in large part precipitated the revolutionary war that birthed the United States. Taxes are indicative of a society’s relationship with its government, as well as its priorities, policies, and even social views — and yet for all the passion and debate they entail, they are among the least well-understood aspects of our country.

The Atlantic clears up this complex and often dicey issue  with over a dozen charts detailing how taxes work in the U.S. While the source material is from 2010 to 2013, much of the data and fundamentals remain relevant as of this post. (Note that I am sharing most, but not all, the charts from the cited piece.) Continue reading

The U.S. Civil War Was Always About Slavery

It is hard to believe that so many Americans doubt that slavery was the central cause of the U.S.’ deadliest conflict, considering that the Confederacy and its members said as much explicitly and clearly.

First up is the state that started the Civil War, South Carolina:

…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

Other states followed suit, often in much clearer terms. Consider Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…

Louisiana:

As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.

Alabama:

Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republi­can party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new princi­ples, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.

And Texas:

…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….

As early as 1858, then-Mississippi Senator — and future President of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis threatened secession if the institution of slavery were to be threatened:

I say to you here as I have said to the Democracy of New York, if it should ever come to pass that the Constitution shall be perverted to the destruction of our rights so that we shall have the mere right as a feeble minority unprotected by the barrier of the Constitution to give an ineffectual negative vote in the Halls of Congress, we shall then bear to the federal government the relation our colonial fathers did to the British crown, and if we are worthy of our lineage we will in that event redeem our rights even if it be through the process of revolution.

As The Atlantic points out, slavery was not just a $3.5 billion-asset to the South — its most valuable by far — but considered the bedrock of the region’s culture, society, and war of life.

If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slaveholder and non-­slaveholder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country.

Many Southern elites even fantasized about extending a slave-based empire across the Americas, especially Cuba, Mexico, and Central America. Numerous Southern publications echoed these sentiments as well, both leading up to and throughout the course of the conflict. Slavery was not a fringe position in the South — it was part and parcel of its cultural identity, social order, and economic power. And many Southerners felt aggressive enough about it to want to expand the institution well beyond U.S. borders, let alone allow it to be contained or threatened.

In short, the U.S. Civil War was an inevitable, even logical, outcome of having one-half of the country steadfast in its commitment to a barbaric and increasingly polarizing ideology. Slavery was incompatible with America’s ostensible values of liberty and the consent of the governed, and it formed the crux of the country’s debate about what sort of place it was going to be. One way or the other, it was going to be challenged, and given the aforementioned attitudes towards the practice, it was always going to be violent.

Source: The Atlantic