America’s Early Alcoholic History

Though alcohol is a billion-dollar industry in the United States (as in many nations) — and its consumption is virtually customary in nearly all events, festivities, and social gatherings, public and intimate — Americans’ love of drink is not what it once was. As The Atlantic reports:

Early America was also a much, much wetter place than it is now, modern frat culture notwithstanding. Instead of binge-drinking in short bursts, Americans often imbibed all day long. “Right after the Constitution is ratified, you could see the alcoholic consumption starting to go up”, said Bustard. Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were. Although some colonial-era beers might have been even weaker than today’s light beers, people drank a lot more of them.

In part, heavy alcohol consumption was a way to stay hydrated: Often, clean water wasn’t always accessible. Hard liquor, on the other hand, was readily available, Bustard said; farmers frequently distilled their grain into alcohol. Rush “may have been observing what’s going on on the frontier”, Bustard said, “thinking, you know: What’s the country going to come to?”

This love of drink was not just perceived as public health problem (though the concept would not emerge until the late 19th century), but even a political one. Continue reading

Same-Sex Marriage Legalized in the U.S.

As most readers have no doubt already heard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the country.

As the New York Times notes, this landmark decision was the culmination of a rapid arc of progress that first came to the fore back in the early 1990s, when the first states began explicitly banning gay marriage. Only in 2003 did a sole state, Massachusetts, allow for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

screenshot-www.nytimes.com 2015-06-26 13-13-16

This rise in marriage equality was the result in a rapid turnaround in public opinion: from only 27 percent public approval in 1996, according to Gallup, to 60 percent as of this year. As The Washington Post observes, this is far more rapid and dramatic a change than most social issues (such as abortion and capital punishment).

The decision was based primarily on the Fourteenth Amendment, namely its Equal Protection Clause, which requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction.  Continue reading

The Last Military Casualties of War

At 9:44 p.m. on July 27, 1953, Harold Smith had just 16 more minutes of the Korean War to survive before a ceasefire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this 21-year old Marine from Illinois out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch, mentally ticking down the seconds. Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine and was fatally wounded. As one soldier recalled, “I was preparing to fire a white star cluster to signal the armistice when his body was brought in”.

Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon were serving as Marine guards near Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy and a gifted woodworker. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines”, said one friend. They had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. At 4:00 a.m. on April 29, a communist rocket struck their position and the two men died instantly.

On the early evening of November 14, 2011, David Hickman was traveling in an armored truck through Baghdad. Hickman, an army specialist from North Carolina, had been in ninth grade when the Iraq War started in 2003. A massive explosion ripped into Hickman’s truck. It was a roadside bomb—the signature weapon of Iraqi insurgents. Hickman was grievously wounded. The next day, just before midnight, the Army visited Hickman’s parents in North Carolina to tell them their son was dead.

Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman were the final American combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, respectively. An unknown soldier will have the same fate in Afghanistan.

These men are the nation’s last full measure of devotion. The final casualty in war is uniquely poignant. It highlights the individual human price of conflict. It signifies the aggravated cruelty of near-survival. It has all the random arbitrariness of a lottery. The Soviet-made 122 mm rocket that killed Judge and McMahon in 1975 was famously inaccurate. It could have landed anywhere in their vicinity. But it fell just a few feet from the Marines. The sergeant who found their bodies wondered, “Why them and not me?”

Most of all, the final casualty underscores the value of ending a conflict. If the United States could have resolved the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq earlier—even just a few minutes earlier—Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman’s lives would have been the first to be spared.

Concluding the fighting has particular urgency in a war without victory. As former navy lieutenant John Kerry remarked during congressional testimony on Vietnam in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

 — Dominic Tierney, “Did America WIn or Lose the Iraq War?“, The Atlantic

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The Judicious Networks of the Current Supreme Court

Eupraxsophy:

Given the pivotal role it has played in a lot of contentious laws as of late (Citizens United, challenges to DOMA and Obamacare, etc.), there has been a lot of analysis — and quite a bit of concern and criticism — regarding the ideological dynamics of America’s highest court. This chart offers a pretty dense and comprehensive view of the subject.

Originally posted on All Truisms:

The current set of Supreme Court Justices, led by Chief Justice Roberts (front row, center). (Photo Credit: the Huffington Post)

With the much anticipated ruling on the legal status of gay marriage on the horizon, I think it is a good time to dive into an uncommon analysis of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). I hope to make this post part of a series focused on the dynamics of the SCOTUS over time and over topics. For the first post of the series, and for the first post of my blog, I focused on the current court, which formed on August 7, 2010, when Elena Kagan was confirmed by the Senate. From August 2010 until July 2014, there were 316 recorded SCOTUS rulings.

First, I want to dispel some notions. I originally posted a SCOTUS agreement network a few months ago on my favorite subreddit r/dataisbeautiful. While many thought the graph was visually…

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Survey Finds Majority of Americans Face Near-Poverty

CBS News reports on a recent poll that found what most us no doubt know well: that the average American is teetering on the brink of poverty and hardship:

Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.

The report classifies “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps, or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. When all races are taken into account, the risk of succumbing to one or all of these incidents rises to an incredible 79 percent.

The breakdown by race is particularly telling, as it signifies just how broad the impact of economic inequality and stagnation has been:

While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.

Marriage rates are in decline across all races, and the number of white mother-headed households living in poverty has risen to the level of black ones.

Nationwide, the count of America’s poor remains stuck at a record number: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population, due in part to lingering high unemployment following the recession. While poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times higher, by absolute numbers the predominant face of the poor is white.

More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.

Sometimes termed “the invisible poor” by demographers, lower-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs as well as small rural towns, where more than 60 percent of the poor are white. Concentrated in Appalachia in the East, they are numerous in the industrial Midwest and spread across America’s heartland, from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma up through the Great Plains.

Buchanan County, in southwest Virginia, is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty hovering at 24 percent. The county is mostly white, as are 99 percent of its poor.

There is no ignoring the racial dimension to poverty, and the roles played by both social and institutionalized racism. But class is increasingly becoming a determining factor, as those lacking the resources and connections needed to advance in the post-industrial economy — the vast majority of Americans — enjoy less of the country’s vast economic potential.

The U.S. remains the richest country in the world by a significant margin, and its economy has continued to grow rather healthily by global standards. There is no reason why so much of its population remains immiserated or, at best, hanging on by a thread. The capital and resources are there, but they are not being allocated and invested properly.

More corporate profits are going to shareholders and upper management, rather than in workers’ pay and benefits. More public revenue is being siphoned off by the military or through tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthy and big business. The political economy is woefully inefficient and tapping into the potential of the American public, whether through the provision of affordable education and job training, or by rewarding hard work through reasonable, liveable wages.

How we fix that is a whole different conversation for another day.

Raising a flag over the Reichstag (Yevgeny Khaldei / Wikimedia)

How Russia Saved The World

England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.

Today is Victory Day (also known as the Ninth of May), which commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent end of the Second World War in Europe. The holiday is still celebrated in most former Soviet republics, especially Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, which bore the brunt of the conflict. Among Russians in particular, the Eastern Front of the conflict remains known as the Great Patriotic War.

Given the currently frigid relations between Russia and the West, it is sadly likely that this immense contribution to ending history’s biggest war will remain largely downplayed, if at all acknowledged. Granted, it would not be the first time that geopolitical factors and mutual suspicion interfered with the historical narrative: the Cold War that followed almost immediately after made crediting our then-rival untenable, while the vast global influence of U.S. media, from comics to film, allowed it to have the prevailing word on of how the war transpired (e.g. with Americans taking center-stage).

Setting aside the intrinsic value of knowing the historical facts, this lack of acknowledgement is all the more jarring given the horrifically high cost of victory. As The Washington Post highlights:

The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction,” writes British historian and journalist Max Hastings in “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.” The Soviet Union paid the harshest price: though the numbers are not exact, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers. At the same time, the Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.

“It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance,” writes Hastings. [By one calculation, for every single American soldier killed fighting the Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died doing the same.]

The epic battles that eventually rolled back the Nazi advance — the brutal winter siege of Stalingrad, the clash of thousands of armored vehicles at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history) — had no parallel on the western front, where the Nazis committed fewer military assets. The savagery on display was also of a different degree than that experienced further west.

Indeed, the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of WWII, and in fact was the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people — at least half of whom were civilians. The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.

By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, claimed 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives, and was by some accounts the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded (for the most part). We didn’t need to even consider, much less implement, wanton and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I am in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output.  Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese, as outlined here, was instrumental to the Pacific Theater).

I am simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself was not horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there is a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They will keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

The World Needs a Better United States

, former South African ambassador to the United States, has written an opinion piece for Al Jazeera that makes the case, as so many others have, that the world’s leading superpower is failing to live up to its potential. America has the capital, resources, and raw talent to be a model of fairness and prosperity to the world.

Though he draws five main lessons from his diplomatic service in the U.S., the last one is most pertinent:

The final lesson is evident in an observation made by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who during the 2011 Egyptian revolution recommended, amongst others, the South African constitution — and not the U.S. constitution — as the model for post Arab Spring societies. South Africa’s constitution, approved in 1996, establishes equality and dignity as cornerstones, and includes such socio-economic rights as the rights to health, shelter and pensions. America’s founding document, by contrast, excludes socio-economic rights in favor of basic liberal rights such as freedom of expression and outmoded ones such as the right to bear arms.

Such fundamental limitations are beginning to reveal fault lines in U.S. society with greater frequency. Although the public voices sympathy for victims of brutal shootings, curbing gun violence through robust policies remains impossible. The continuing police mistreatment of young black men sparks protests, but not substantive reform. Resistance by congressional Republicans to the Affordable Care Act dramatizes the fragile commitment the U.S. has to the equality and well-being of its citizens, as more and more people will be excluded from basic rights and privileges as inequality widens.

For the U.S. to continue to become a better country and partner to the world, it must make several transitions. It must go from militarism and unilateralism to engagement and détente in solving global problems. It should move from Africa as an afterthought and security problem to Africa as the last economic frontier to be developed in the mutual interest of the U.S. and the world’s most youthful continent. And it must shift from its rampant individualism to a more balanced social solidarity to manage and overcome the fault lines that continue to emerge in American society. The world needs the U.S. to be at peace with itself.

What do you think? Are these the steps the U.S. needs to take to better itself and, by extension, the world? Could or even should the U.S. play such a role in the world? Share your thoughts.

The Forgotten Figures Who Paved The Way For Civil Rights

From Slate:

Without [John] Bingham’s revisions to Section 1 [of the 14th Amendment], it’s entirely possible that the equal protection clause would have outlawed only racial discrimination—a major addition to our Constitution, to be sure, but a long way from the provision that we have today. Instead, Bingham incorporated into our Constitution the broad promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”. Better still, he perfected and universalized it by substituting the word “person” for Jefferson’s “men”.

In recent weeks, our nation has commemorated two other important anniversaries—the end of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. To mark these occasions, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation, commentators penned countless op-eds, and various historical sites hosted events throughout the country. While these activities are wholly justified, it’s important not to forget about our nation’s post-Civil War story.

In our collective reverence for Lincoln, we often give short shrift to the generation of leaders who succeeded him and who radically improved our nation’s founding charter after his death. These forgotten Americans—leaders like John Bingham, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner, among others—shared Lincoln’s goal of securing a “new birth of freedom” for all Americans and pushed for the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It’s no wonder that scholars often refer to this period as our nation’s “second founding“.

What Scandinavia Can Teach Us About Taxes

While I am on something of a tax kick (and apparently a Vox.com one), the website has another article that questions the very notion that average citizens should have to worry about these details to begin with.

The IRS knows what you make. It knows if you typically take the standard deduction. For a lot of Americans, the IRS could just fill out their taxes for them. It would save billions of dollars in tax preparation fees and hundreds of millions of hours spent filling out tax forms.

This isn’t some wild idea: it was piloted in California, where citizens loved it — 97 percent of those who used it said they would do so again. It’s how taxes work in Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. “No other industrialized country asks its citizens to jump through as many hoops to calculate their taxes as ours,” writes Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times.

This idea has considerable traction across the political spectrum, though it faces powerful opposition:

Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, is a particularly powerful opponent. Such a system “minimizes the taxpayers’ voice and control over the tax process by reducing their role in filing their taxes and getting their own money back,” David Williams, the company’s chief tax officer, told the Times.

But that excuse doesn’t hold much water. Under these automatic systems, no one has to let the IRS fill out their taxes for them. They can continue to do it by hand or by TurboTax, or hire an accountant. Intuit knows, however, that many fewer Americans would do their own taxes under this scenario, and that would be a big hit to Intuit’s bottom line.

Some anti-tax conservatives also hate the idea of the IRS filling out sample returns. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, warns, “Conservatives, in particular, should see this ploy for what it clearly is: a money-grab by the government.” The easier and more efficient the tax system is, the more money it will raise, and the less public anger there will be for anti-tax conservatives to harness.

For much more on this subject, ProPublica’s investigation of Intuit’s lobbying against automatic tax filing is the best look at why a policy with so much bipartisan support can’t seem to pass Congress, and the Sunlight Foundation has even more lobbying numbers here. Wonks will want to spend some time with economist Austan Goolsbee’s white paper on how automatic filing could work in practice. And you can read Intuit’s case against California’s Ready Return system here.

It seems there is no issue in American politics, however broadly supported or commonsensical, that does not face well-monied and powerful lobbyists. I wonder if the Scandinavian nations had to deal with this?

Nine Charts That Explain Taxes In America

While taxes remain on many Americans’ minds, click here to view nine charts from Vox.com that explain the vagaries and little-known facts about the U.S. tax system.

For an even more extensive guide to taxes — such as how federal income taxes work and why payroll taxes differ from taxes on investment — click here.