The Worst Problems of the United States (2004)

Back to Politics
  1. Guns: 200 million guns (100 times the Iraqi army) and 25,000 people killed by firearms every year (the equivalent of many years of civil war in Yugoslavia). Firearm deaths per 100,000 people (CDCP, Bureau Of Justice Statistics, 1998): 14.24 in the U.S., 4.31 in Canada, 0.7 in Holland, and only 0.41 in England (where not even police carry guns). Which means that if you live in the U.S., you are 40 times more likely to die of gunshots than if you live in Britain. Murders by handguns (1996): 15 in Japan, 30 in Britain, 211 in Germany, 9,390 in the United States. Which means if you live in the U.S., you are 300 times more likely to be murdered than in you live in Britain. In 1999 USA citizens were certainly reassured that "only" 6,000 workers were killed by colleagues in the workplace, a 10% drop from 1994's figure of 6,600... but still just about twice the number of people killed by the Serbs in the Kosovo war. The scariest data are about the other 25,000 deaths by handgun: they are suicides and accidents. In the U.S. a child a day is killed by a handgun. If you define "terrorist" as "causing terror in the public", the N.R.A., the organization which protects guns, can claim to be, de facto, the deadliest terrorist organization in the world. It is not true that the right to bear guns is written in the Constitution: the Constitution talks about guns that were available at the end of the 18th century, and was written before the US developed a true army. It makes no reference to "every future evolution of guns". Therefore, the only guns that are constitutionally legal are the ones that were available two hundred years ago.
  2. According to FBI data, Texas leads the nation (and possibly the entire world) in unsolved serial highway homicides
  3. No universal health insurance: 44 million citizens without medical insurance (1999), or one every six citizens, which makes the US the last in the developed world, lower than Russia, China, India and even all of South America. Only a few African countries fare worse. Every year thousands of USA citizens die because they didn't have the money to cure themselves, and thousands turn into criminals because they can't pay hospital bills. If you have dual citizenship, you can always fly back to your country of origin and get good and free health care. But for most USA citizens a simple sport injury is enough to ruin their entire life. Whatever system the USA has right now (an absurdly complicated patchwork of benefits and providers that makes you miss the bureaucracy of communism), it is the most expensive in the world and one of the most ridicule failures in the history of medical care: the World Health Organization ranked the US only 37th among world's countries in the quality of health coverage (2000). It is embarassing that in the year 2000 the wealthiest country in the world still cannot offer free health care to all of its citizens.
  4. Education: the USA educational system is the most expensive on earth and one of the worst in the developed world. Scores of USA citizens with dual citizenship move back to their countries of origins when their children turn 6 or 7: they can get a much better education and even for free, and in a country where kids don't carry guns into school. It is embarassing that in the year 2000 the richest country in the world still cannot offer good and free education to all children of the USA.
  5. A democracy under attack on so many fronts. See Reform the electoral system
  6. Family breakdown: single mothers, homosexual parents, 50% divorce rate, etc. This may also be the most important factor in creating the most crime-prone youth in the world.
  7. Death penalty: the death penalty is still legal in the U.S. and the U.S. ranks third in the world in executions (73 in 1997, slightly less in 1998 and slightly more in 1999). 1625 people were executed in the world (Amnesty Intl, 1998): 1067 in China, 100 in Congo, 68 in the U.S. and 66 in Iran. These are the countries that believe in the death penalty. Not a company to be proud of. The US would not qualify for membership in the European Union, as abolition of the death penalty is one of the few factors used to certify that a country is civilized.
    Statistics show that the death penalty is even counterproductive: a 2000 FBI report shows that homicide rates have been consistently lower in states without the death penalty. The homicide rate in states with the death penalty has always been higher (sometimes as much as 100% higher) than in states without the death penalty. The South accounts for over 80% of the US' executions and still has the highest number of homicides: are southerners genetically evil or is the death penalty a factor that increases the number of homicides?
    In a 1995 study, 100% of criminologists and 85% of police chiefs said that politicians support the death penalty to show that they are tough on crime. 94% of criminologists and 79% of police chiefs believed that the death penalty does not significantly reduce the murder rate. Police chiefs listed five factors that would be more effective than the death penalty to deter crime (one of them being gun control). Countries in Europe that have long abolished the death penalty have a far lower murder rate than the US.
    The vast majority of the convicts executed are simply poor individuals who cannot afford an expensive lawyer: no wealthy person has ever been executed in the United States, no matter the crime. The death penalty is also partially to blame for the extreme violence of USA criminals, who know they face death if caught. Instead of deterring crime, the death penalty is likely to increase it.
    Between 1973 and 2002, almost 100 people have been found to be innocent after they had already been sentenced to death. Sure, it is reassuring to know that so many people could still prove their innocence before being executed. It is not too reassure to wonder how many more were executed before they could prove their innocence (mostly because they didn't have the money to hire expensive attorneys and detectives).
  8. Serial killers and mass murderers: they are almost a USA exclusive. Since 1960, over 100 people have been charged with killing more than 10 people. In the rest of the western world, only 2 people have been charged with the same crime. Serial killers tend to be invariably male, white, anglosaxon and protestant: Ed Gein, Charles Manson, Donald Evans, Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Gary Heidnik, Bobby Joe Long, Arthur Shawcross, Joel Rifkin, William Suff, Dennis Nilsen, Charles Whitman, Randy Kraft, John Christie, John Wesley Dodd,... not to mention the Unabomber and the perpetrators of the Oklahoma bombing. We have news of only one serial killer who was a woman (Virginia McGinnis) and only two who were not white (Wayne Williams, who was probably framed for crimes committed by the KKK, and Henry Louis Wallace),
  9. No vacations: the average USA citizen has only two weeks of paid time off (compared with five weeks in Italy, France and Germany), which results in stress and low quality of life, not to mention little knowledge of the rest of the world. Even Japanese and Koreans enjoy more vacations than USA citizens.
  10. Stock market: 45% of USA household holds shares (1997 data), as opposed to 25% in 1987 and to only 3% in 1929; stock market gains amounted to about 35% of personal disposable income in the U.S. in 1997 (versus 6% in Germany). A crash of the stock market would have far more dramatic repercussions than in 1929. Even a slight decline would start a chain reaction that would affect catastrophically everything from jobs to real estate prices. The value of the U.S. stock market has increased from about 2 trillion dollars in 1988 to over 10 trillion dollars in 1998.
  11. Illicit drugs: virtually ubiquitous in all sectors of society, from the president down to the ghettos. A person whose brain has been permanently retarded by marijuana is considered perfectly normal. A governor who sniffed cocaine as a youth is a perfectly reasonable candidate for president. Never mind that the US is staging a war against drugs that has taken thousands of lives in South America, mainly of poor peasants.
  12. Immigration laws: they preclude entrance to badly needed skilled workers (from babysitters to software engineers) but let in huge numbers of unskilled relatives. Any foreigner who can find a good job at home, gets quickly discouraged by the US Immigration laws to find a job in the US. Only those who could not find a good job at home are willing to stay and endure the humiliation and bureaucratic torture of finding a sponsor and applying for a green card. Why can't the US just let in prospective immigrants on the basis of their education and skills?
  13. Metric system: in the year 2000 USA citizens still use gallons and feet and miles. A USA citizen abroad is a farce as s/he tries to figure out a distance or a weight. A USA citizen at home is a farce as s/he tries to figure out how many cubic feet are in so many cubic yards, or how many pounds a gallon of water weighs (all trivial conversions in the metric system).
  14. Public transportation: most USA states lack the fast and efficient public transportation that is available in Europe and in the Far East and is being left behind. There is no bullet-train in the western states. There is no plan for magnetic trains. There is no frequent, reliable, super-fast connection between most of the metropoles of the USA. If you want to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles, your best choice is driving along a 2-lane freeway for 7-8 hours, just like your grandfather did: a CalTrain takes about 14 hours. A French bullet train would take about 2 hours. Surprisingly, USA citizens often return from a "third-world" country with funny stories of how slow trains or buses are in that country, without realizing that in most states trains and buses (if they exist at all) are even slower (and older).
    Between 1977 and 1995 the New York Review of Books (June 2001) reports that US governments spent about 14% of their transportation money on public transportation (the rest was spent on roads), whereas Europeans spent 40 to 60% on public transportation. Taxes on gasoline are between 5 and 10 times lower than in European countries. Basically, the USA is subsidizing gasoline so that USA citizens can afford driving their cars. It is not true that USA citizens "need" to drive because of the long distances: the vast majority of USA cars are owned by city dwellers and almost 99% of car trips are urban (shopping, movies, work, etc). If they were entirely replaced by public transportation, traffic would be minimal and dependence on oil would not be an issue anymore.
  15. Pentagon: the US spends several times more in weapons than Russia and China combined. Russia has been steadily reducing its military budget, while the US keeps increasing it. This has become a one-country arms race. It was senseless enough when there were two countries racing, but now there is only one country racing. The only clear beneficiaries of this one-country arms race are the special interests (weapon manufacturers) that have influential mentors in Washington. What are all those weapons for if nobody is attacking the US, the USA's enemies are reducing their military arsenal and USA politician themselves argue that the USA should not police the world?
  16. Pollution: the U.S. is the #1 polluting country in the world. The staggering fact is that the heavy industries are not to be blamed, as they have the most stringent code in the world. USA pollution stems from consumers, millions of ordinary citizens who are convinced of being good citizens only because they "recycle", but don't realize that they consume hundreds of times more than the rest of the world and therefore their good recycling habits are simply hypocritical. Think of plastic: USA citizens abuse of plastic in every single aspect of their lives. Then they recycle it and think that they are responsible citizens. The fact is that plastic pollutes and is close to eternal. The only way to be responsible is to avoid plastic at all costs. Don't put your food in plastic containers, avoid taperware, ask stores not to bag in plastic, don't buy drinks in plastic containers (whether water or milk or juice), etc. Avoid fast-food places that use plastic utensils. Plastic is way too pervasive in the U.S. And way too expensive for future generations. (Incidentally there is growing evidence that recycling plastic may be more damaging to the environment than just burying it).
  17. Obesity. Ranked by number of deaths, this would be number one: 300,000 USA citizens die every year of causes related to obesity. The AIDS epidemics has never even come close to this number. 7% of all health care dollars are spent on obesity-related deseases. USA citizens are obsessed with fastening seat belts in a car, a fact that has almost no statistical effect on their longevity (about 5,000 lives are saved every year by seat belts) but then they are happy to die like flies (300,000 a year) of obesity. A lot has been said against the tobacco industry, which is responsible for thousands of emphisema and cancer-related deaths, not to mention a trillion dollars in medical expenses, but obesity dwarfs everything else. Why don't they criminalize McDonald's and the Texas beef industry the same way they criminalized selling and manufacturing cigarettes?
  18. Alcohol. Not only has the United States the highest number of alcoholics in the West, but the country also pays a dear price for their actions: alcohol is a factor in a third of all rapes, in a quarter of all assaults, and in half of all homicides.
"This belief in the irreplaceable deterrent value of the death-penalty has been proved to be a superstition by the long and patient inquiries of the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1930 and the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment of 1948; yet it pops up again and again. Like all superstitions, it has the nature of a Jack-in-the-box: however often you hit it over the head with facts and statistics, it will solemny pop up again, because the hidden spring inside it is the unconscious and irrational power of traditional beliefs" (Arthur Koestler, 1957)