Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Electoral Integrity in the United States

With the recent announcement by Christopher Krebs, Undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that Russia, China, Iran and other nations were engaged in efforts to influence U.S. policies and voters in future elections, it certainly appears that Washington's paranoia about electoral meddling are alive and well.  That said, the findings of a recent report from the Electoral Integrity Project would suggest that one of the main problems with electoral integrity in America is not sourced from outside the United States.

The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) is an independent academic project undertaken by Harvard University and Sydney University, gathering expert perceptions of electoral integrity using 49 indicators in eleven sub-dimensions including:

1.) Laws
2.) Procedures
3.) Boundaries
4.) Voter Registration
5.) Party Registration
6.) Media
7.) Campaign Finance
8.) Voting Process
9.) Vote Count
10.) Results
11.) Electoral Authorities

The report entitled "Why Elections Fail and What We Can Do About It" takes a look at the 2016 American presidential election.  The report opens by noting that partisan political polarization has grown substantially since the "dangling chad" election debacle in 2000 which saw Florida swing a very controversial election to George W. Bush.  Democrats have expressed concerns over the suppression of voting rights and Republicans have expressed concerns over the risks of voter fraud.  Both sides have also taken aim at the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries and the disparities between the Electoral College vote and the popular vote.
For the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity report for the 2016 presidential election (PEI-US-2016), the authors gathered evaluations of electoral integrity in their state two weeks after voting day in November 2016 from 726 university-based political scientists with a demonstrated knowledge of the electoral process in the United States.  Respondents completed a brief online questionnaire shown here:

Results were scored out of 100 with higher numbers showing greater electoral integrity.

Let's start with an overall look at the scoring for the eleven sub-dimensions averaged across the entire United States:

As you can see, the area which was judged as having the lowest electoral integrity was district boundaries.  The issue of gerrymandered district boundaries has been consistently regarded as the worst aspect of U.S. elections, in fact, when measured against 153 other nations, the United States came in with the second lowest score.  Gerrymandering results in the repeated elections of certain politicians time and time again and is a tool used by congressmen to ensure that they remain in power.  By gerrymandering a district's boundaries, politicians can ensure that certain people groups are eliminated from voting against them.  Here is a look at some of the most gerrymandered districts:

1.) Maryland's 3rd:

2.) Massachusetts' 7th:

3.) Florida's 5th:

4.) Illinois' 4th:

Two states scored particularly poorly on this aspect of electoral integrity; North Carolina scored a 7 and Wisconsin scored an 8.

The United States also scores poorly on electoral laws.  The imposition of certain laws has resulted in the suppression of voting by legitimate citizens.  The scores for this aspect of American elections ranged from a low of 17 in Wisconsin to a high of 68 in Washington.  Media coverage is also scored poorly with the 2016 election seeing a particularly negative and partisan tone of news coverage by both sides of the political spectrum.  The scores for this aspect of American elections ranged from a low of 40 in Nevada to a high of 68 in Idaho.  Campaign financing also receives a poor score thanks to dark money and unfettered corporate campaign contributions.  In comparison to its peers, the United States finds itself in the lower third of all campaign financing scores on a global basis.

Now, let's look at a map which shows the scoring on a state level.  This map shows the overall scores for all 11 sub-dimensions for electoral integrity for each state:

The lowest overall score was in Arizona with a score of 53 and the highest score was in Vermont with a score of 75. 

Let's close this posting.  While the conclusions of this study suggest that all is not well when it comes to electoral integrity in the United States, particularly in some states, it is a worthwhile exercise to compare the state of electoral democracy in the United States to that of other nations.  In a previous posting I looked at the Variety of Democracies or V-Dem project at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.  That study shows that the United States scores very modestly when it comes to holding free and fair elections as shown here and, has actually seen its electoral freedom decline over the decade between 2007 and 2017 as shown on this graphic:

While Washington loves to tout its model of democracy as the model that should be emulated by the rest of the world, in fact, as the study of electoral integrity and the study of electoral freedom would suggest, all is not well in the state of the world's most powerful "democracy".  It would certainly appear that outside attempts to influence the 2018 election are the least of America's problems when it comes to the state of its democratic institutions.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Health of Democracy in America

While Washington likes to think of itself as the democracy to be emulated by all nations around the globe, setting the standard for what a democracy really should be, a recent study by the Variety of Democracies Project in Sweden would suggest that the state of democracy in the United States is under significant strain, an issue that has become particularly obvious given the state of political theatre in Washington since the 2000 hanging chads debacle in Florida.

In the 2018 edition of the Variety of Democracies (V-Dem) report from the University of Gothenburg in Gothenburg, Sweden we get a sense of the health of democracy around the world. For the purposes of this posting, I wish to focus on findings of democratic health in the United States, looking at how it has changed in recent years as well as comparing the current state of democracy in America to other nations around the world.  V-Dem has the largest global database on democracy with over 19 million data points for 201 nations over the years from 1789 to 2017.  V-Dem measures the quality of elections using a significant number of indicators including voting rights, campaign media, opposition boycotts, electoral violence and independence of the body managing the election.  By asking the question "Taking all aspects of the pre-election period, Election Day, and the post-election process into account, would you consider this national election to be free and fair?", the results can be compared for elections held in 161 countries over the period from 2000 to 2012. 

The authors of the report note that liberal democracies are systematically better than other political regimes like electoral democracies and autocracies at ensuring that all citizens can influence the political process, no matter their socio-economic status or gender.  V-Dem defines liberal democracies as electoral democracies with three additional components:

1.) Rule of law ensuring respect for civil liberties.

2.) Constraints on the executive by the judiciary.

3.) Constraints on the executive by the legislature.

Other political systems can result in political exclusion and reduced freedom and political power.  This is particularly apparent in nations where growing socio-economic stratification is taking place, putting more political power in the hands of the wealthy oligarchy and removing it from the lower stratas of society.  As such, autocratization is defined by V-Dem as a decline in democratic qualities whether the country is a democracy or an autocracy.

If we look at the world in its entirety, here is a graphic showing the share of the global population by each type of regime in 2017:

While the majority of the global population lives in democratic regimes, the authors of the report note that there has been a significant increase in the world's population that is experiencing autocratization with one-third of the world's population or 2.5 billion people living in regimes that are becoming less democratic.  These nations include India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Thailand, Ukraine, Poland and....wait for it, the United States.

Here is a graph showing how democracies have evolved with improving liberal democracies above the line and declining electoral democracies (i.e. nations experiencing autocratization) below the line over rate decade from 2007 to 2017:

As you can see, democracy in the United States has shown a substantial decline over the decade.
Here is a graphic showing where the United States scores on the V-Dem liberal democracy index as compares to the rest of the world keeping in mind that a Liberal Democracy index (LDI) of over 0.5 indicates a democracy and with the advancing nations shown in green and the backsliding nations (autocratizing) shown in red:

Here is a table showing the nations showing the greatest autocratization over the past two years and the change in their LDI:

Let's close this posting with a brief observation.  While both sides of the political spectrum in the United States have expressed their concerns over the fairness of the upcoming mid-term elections (Democrats over vote suppression and Republicans over voter fraud) and Washington as a whole clearly stating its belief that Russia, China and Iran are meddling in the 2018 electoral circus, the fact that democracy is under threat in America is cleverly never mentioned by either side.  Given the fact that billions of dollars are pumped into federal politics by the wealthy oligarchy in America, it is quite clear that the will of the many is being subsumed by the will of the few, one of the significant issues that is leading to increased autocratization in the United States.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Cornering the Market on Guns

Updated August 2019

While we frequently hear stories about the pervasiveness of gun ownership in the United States, we rarely see a comparison to gun ownership rates in the rest of the world.  Thanks to the 2018 edition of the Small Arms Survey we have a good idea of how many small arms are privately owned by civilians in 56 nations across the globe.

The authors of the survey used the following sources to calculate their final estimate of civilian firearms ownership:

"1. Where relevant national statistics were available, they were used to establish the number of registered firearms. If only the number of persons licensed to own a fire- arm was available, this number served as a minimum estimate for registered firearms, with the assumption that each person with a licence owns at least one firearm.

2. If population surveys were available, a mean estimate of the number of firearms was calculated, using the most recent reliable survey of households and individuals in each country/territory. Each estimate was then adjusted for annual increase to make results comparable and aligned to the reporting year.

3. Expert estimates were analysed and mean estimates of the number of civilian firearms in each country/territory were produced. Each estimate was then adjusted for annual increase to the reporting year, making up for the difference between the year of the original estimate and the reporting year. Highest and lowest expert estimates were discarded if they were too extreme.

4. Survey- and expert-based mean estimates were averaged out for each country/territory, if they were available.

5. Attrition (known actions that would deflate numbers) since the reference year was considered; that is, any known figures were deducted related to civilian disarmament, firearms collection programmes, seizures, destruction, etc. from the mean estimate derived from expert assessments and survey-based estimates.

6. In countries/territories where no information from sources (1), (2), or (3) was available, firearms numbers were estimated using analogous rates from comparable countries and territories where the research team, guided by available research and media reporting, appraised whether analogous comparisons were plausible."

The authors also assumed that the annual change in total civilian ownership of at least one percent per year was the same in each nation with the exceptions of the United States where gun ownership rates are documented as being higher than 1 percent and Japan where gun ownership rates are documented as being lower than 1 percent.

The authors of the study concluded the following for the end of 2017:

1.) There were approximately 857 million civilian-owned firearms throughout the world.

2.) Approximately 100 million or 12 percent of the total civilian firearms were registered.

3.) Law enforcement owned 22.7 million firearms.

4.) Military forces owned 133 million firearms.

5.) Annual gun ownership rates increased by 4.16 percent in the United States in recent years.

Here is a table showing the 25 nations with the most civilian-owned firearms, both legal and illicit:

The authors also found that national gun ownership rates per 100 residents varied widely by nation as shown on this table:

In both cases, the United States comes out far ahead of its peers when it comes to both total civilian gun ownership and civilian gun ownership rates, in fact, the United States has the distinction of having 45.9 percent of the world's total inventory of civilian-owned guns with the United States having 4.3 percent of the world's total population.

Let's take a closer look at the United States.  Here is a graphic showing the number of firearms acquired on an annual basis by type going back to 2000 (in millions):

Firearms sales patterns have changed dramatically over the past decade with pistols and semi-automatic rifle sales growing at far higher rates than other types of firearms, in fact, in 2012, 13 percent of all American purchases of firearms were semi-automatic rifles.

Let's close with three additional graphics from Statista.  Here is a graph showing the percentage of U.S. households that own firearms:

Here is a graph showing the number of registered weapons by state:

Here is a graph showing the number of firearms manufactured in the United States in 2015 by category:

In case you don't have a calculator handy, a total of 9,356,661 firearms were manufactured in the United States in 2015.

I will let you draw your own conclusions from the data in this posting, however, it is undeniably an  interesting exercise to put American gun ownership into a global context. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

The World's Top Arms Companies

With global sabre-rattling reaching levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) gives us a unique view of who benefits from the current pervasive war mentality.  In its Fact Sheet "The SIPRI Top 100 Arms-Producing and Military Services Companies, 2016", SIPRI looks at the global arms manufacturing business and provides us with an interesting look at just how profitable this business is, a fact that should be of great concern to taxpayers everywhere since it is our hard-earned tax dollars that ultimately end up as profits for the defense business.  Here are some of the more interesting facts from this very well researched fact sheet.

According to the authors, the 100 largest arms-producing and military services companies had total sales of $374.8 billion in 2016, a year-over-year increase of 1.9 percent, the first increase since 2010 as shown on this graphic:

This sales growth is attributed to ongoing military operations in various nations including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as major new weapons procurement programs in some nations.

In the top 100 defense companies we find 63 American and West European companies which account for 82.4 percent of total arms sales for 2016.  Of these, 38 are American and 25 are Western European with companies in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Poland, Norway, Italy and Switzerland.  A total of 10 companies out of the 100 largest are located in Russia.  Other major defense companies are located in Israel, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore, Turkey, Brazil and Australia.  It is important to note that there are several China-based arms-producing companies that would be large enough to fit into the top 100, however, there is a lack of accurate data available.  Based on the growth in China's military spending, the authors estimate that at least 9 or 10 Chinese companies would be in the top 100 and 2 would be in the top ten.  It is also interesting to note that over the past 15 years, the same 12 companies have occupied the top ten spots on the ranking, showing how the power in the defense industry is controlled by a few companies; in 2016, the top ten companies accounted for $194.8 billion worth of sales or 52 percent of the total for the year.

Here is a pie chart showing the national share of arms sales by the top 100 companies:

As you can see, American companies are, by a wide margin, the biggest sellers of equipment designed to kill and maim people.

Here is a breakdown of sales by region:

1.) United States: The 38 U.S.-based companies had combined sales of $217.6 billion in 2016, accounting for 57.9 percentage of the overall sales for the top 100 companies.  On a year-over-year basis, sales in 2016 rose by 4 percent, reversing the declines of the past 5 years.  Lockheed Martin, the world's largest arms manufacturer, sold $40.8 billion worth of arms, an increase of 10.7 percent on a year-over-year basis, largely based on its acquisition of Sikorsky.   The authors of the study state that American military services companies have managed to increase sales mainly by acquisitions of smaller service companies that are divested by larger arms manufacturers.

2.) Western Europe: In the top 100, we find 8 British companies which account for sales of $36.1 billion or 9.6 percent of total sales.  Sales on a year-over-year basis grew by 2.0 percent.  BAE Systems, Britain's largest arms dealer, was the largest seller with sales up by 0.4 percent followed by Rolls-Royce which saw sales rise by 4.5 percent on a year-over-year basis.

In the top 100, we find 6 French companies which account for sales of $18.6 billion or 5.0 percent of total sales.  On a year-over-year basis, sales dropped by 0.8 percent mainly due to a slowdown in delivery of Dassault's Rafale combat aircraft.

3.) Russia: The 10 Russian companies listed in the top 100 had sales of $26.6 billion in 2016, accounting for 7.1 percent of the overall sales.  On a year-over-year basis, sales rose by 3.8 percent with sales rising for 5 companies and falling for 5 companies.  United Aircraft Corporation, the 13th ranked company in the top 100 saw arms sales rise by 15.6 percent on a year-over-year basis, the highest growth among all Russian companies in the top 100.

In closing, here is a table showing the key data for the top 20 companies in the top 100:

What I found particularly interesting was the column showing the arms sales as a percent of total sales, particularly for the top 10 sellers.  In seven out of ten companies, excluding Boeing and Airbus, two companies known for their passenger aircraft divisions, and the Thales Group of France which is also known for its space, ground transportation and security divisions, between 61 and 95 percent of sales are related to arms sales meaning that these companies are essentially supported by tax dollars.

Given the world's current state of war in several theatres along with the pre-war posturing by Washington, Tehran and Pyongyang, the global trend in military spending is likely to increase over the coming years, much to the delight of the global military-industrial complex.  Fortunately, there seems to be an endless source of taxpayer funding that keeps the ladies and gentlemen occupying the executive floors of these companies in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Well-Being of Americans

While Washington seems to be spending its energy on fake news and Russiagate, Main Street Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their basic needs.  According to a recent study entitled "The Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey" (WBNS) by the Urban Institute, many families in the United States are considered financially insecure despite an economy that is operating at full speed.  Here are some interesting excerpts from this report.

The WBNS sample is drawn from 7588 participants and surveys these key domains:

1.) Housing and neighborhoods

Housing tenure
Housing type
Rental assistance
Housing and utility affordability Housing stability/evictions Neighborhood quality/safety
Family and community support

2.) Food security

Household food insecurity
Reliance on charitable feeding programs

3.) Health status and health care

Self-reported health status
Disability status
Chronic conditions
Psychological distress
Health insurance coverage
Unmet needs for medical care because of costs 
Problems paying family medical bills 
Perceived stress

4.) Employment

Employment status
Employer type
Hours worked per week
Labor force participation 
Factors affecting ability to work 
Employee benefits

5.) Family income

Sources of family income
Family income as a percentage of FPL 

6.) Safety net program participation

TANF or other cash assistance 
Child care assistance
Free or reduced-price school lunch 
7.) Family financial security

Use of alternative financial services (e.g., payday loans, auto title loans) Missed payments on credit cards or loans
Self-reported financial well-being
Unexpected family income changes
Unexpected household expenditures
Contacts by debt collection agencies
Confidence in ability to pay for unexpected expenses

Here are some of the findings:

1.) 10.2 percent of non-elderly adults reported problems paying their rent or mortgage.

2.) 13 percent of respondents were unable to pay utilities bills.

3.) 68.2 percent of adults reported being employed and 80.7 percent of those were working full-time.   When respondents' incomes are below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, the employment rate drops to 43.9 percent.

4.) 18 percent of respondents had problems paying family medical bills in the 12 months before the survey.  When respondents' incomes are below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, 25.8 percent of respondents reported problems paying medical bills.

5.) 17.8 percent of respondents reported that they had unmet medical news due to high costs in the 12 months before the survey.  When respondents' incomes are below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, 27.3 percent of respondents reported unmet medical needs.

6.) 23.3 percent of respondents reported that their household experienced food insecurity in the 12 months before the survey.  When respondents incomes are below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, 46.2 percent of respondents report food insecurity.

On an overall basis, according to the Urban Institute study, nearly 40 percent of adults reported that they had trouble meeting at least one basic need; housing, utilities, health care or food.  Although these problems tend to occur at lower household income levels, the ability to meet all of life's basic needs extends across the income distribution.  As well, the authors observed that adults who report one type of hardship often report other problems as well.

Let's take a brief look at a study by Gallup and Sharecare from 2018.  According to the "State of American Well-being: 2017 Community Well-being Rankings" the state of well-being can be measured using the following elements:

1.) Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals

2.) Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life

3.)  Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security

4.) Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community 

5.) Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Well-being varies significantly across the United States as shown here:

Here are the communities with the highest overall well-being scores:

Here are the communities with the lowest overall well-being scores:

Let's summarize.  Against the backdrop of the supposed health of the U.S. economy, we can clearly see that a very significant portion of Americans are struggling to meet even the most basic of needs like housing, medical care and food. Despite what Washington may be telling us about the strength of the economy, it is apparent that the well-being of Americans is a mirage for millions of households.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The B61 Mod 12 - America's Latest Nuclear Deterrent

While the world flirts on the edge of the nuclear precipice, a recent article on the Warrior Maven website looks at recent developments in the American nuclear program.   According to the author of the report, Kris Osborn, the USAF has recently test-dropped an upgraded B61-12 (aka B61 Mod 12) nuclear bomb with improved accuracy from a B-2 Stealth bomber.  This most recent modification to the B61 nuclear weapon is designed to improve the weapon's accuracy and that allows it to be equipped so that various attack options can be used depending on the mission.  Let's look at some background on the B61 and some information on the most current progress on the Life Extension Program for the B61. 

Here is a table from Nuclear Weapons Archive showing the key technical data of the B-61 series of bombs:

The B-61 bomb was designed and developed by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1963 and  fielded in 1968 as a light weight weapon of intermediate yield which could be carried by high performance aircraft including the B-51, B-1, B-2B. F-16, F/A-18 and Tornado.  It is designed with the following delivery modes:

1.) Free fall air burst (high altitude only)
2.) Parachute retarded airburst (high or medium altitudes)
3.) Free fall contact burst (high or medium altitudes)
4.) Parachute retarded contact burst (high or medium altitudes)
5.) Parachute retarded laydown delayed surface burst (delivery altitudes up to 5000 feet), 31 and 81 sec delays available   

The B61 Mod 11 is now considered outdated and, as such, is slated to be updated under the B61-12 Life Extension Program or LEP as part of the Nuclear Posture Review which is to be available beginning in 2021 and completed by fiscal year 2024.  Under the LEP, the latest iteration of the B61 will combine Mods 3, 4, and 10 into a single bomb  Here is a photo of the B61 Mod 12 undergoing acoustic testing:

The new B61-12 will be delivered by the following aircraft:

Here's the promotional literature/propaganda about the B61-12 program from the National Nuclear Security Administration:

 According to the Arms Control Association, the B61 LEP will accomplish the following:

"The B61-12 is slated to begin production in 2020 and will refurbish the bomb  with new firing, arming, and safety components, updated radar components, permissive action link components and equipment, modified power supplies, thermal batteries, join test assemblies, weapon trainers, and test and handling gear.  The LEP will also modify the B61 for compatibility with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The LEP will extend the life of the B61s for 20-30 years."

The B61-12 will be equipped with a new tail kit guidance designed and built by Boeing; the new tail kit will allow for more accurate delivery than the current parachute system and, according to the USAF, will "enable the air force's strategic bomber aircraft to conduct lower-yield strikes against military targets with reduced radioactive fallouts" with the hope that enemy forces will realize that the United States may be less reluctant to use nuclear weapons if there is a lower threat of post-detonation issues.

Here is a map showing where the B61-12 development activities will take place:

An assessment by the Government Accountability Office from 2018 notes that cost estimates for the B61 Mod 12 LEP had changed since May 2011 when its initial cost estimate was $4 billion.  In October 2016, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) estimated that LEP costs had risen to $7.6 billion with a completion date of fiscal 2025.  A later independent cost estimate for the program from the NNSA Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation raised the cost estimate yet again to $10 billion and pushed the completion date back to fiscal 2027.

Let's look at a flight test of the new B61-12:

Here is a press release from the NNSA regarding the latest non-nuclear flight tests of the B61-12 gravity bomb equipped with its new tail-kit built by Boeing held on June 9, 2018 at the Tonopah Test Range located in Nevada:

The original contract for the new tail-kit was awarded in November 2012 to Boeing with an initial value of $178 million as shown.  Here's what Boeing had to say about getting yet another outpouring of generosity from American taxpayers:

Boeing has provided a wide range of reliable and affordable direct attack weapon solutions to the warfighter for more than a decade.  We will apply our proven experience in tail kit production to this platform to effectively upgrade a vital deterrent capability."

In other words, Boeing has provided even more efficient ways for human beings to kill other human beings.

Finally, let's look at this table from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showing its latest assessment of the global nuclear weapons stockpile:

At the beginning of 2017, the world had an estimated 14,935 nuclear weapons meaning that there has been a year-over-year drop in the nuclear weapons count of 470 weapons or 3.1 percent.

In closing, do you remember this:

Sorry folks, not gonna happen.  The B-61 modification program very, very clearly demonstrates that reality.