America's sad certainty: violent deaths and lower taxes

You can see it with guns, the fiscal cliff, even subprime lending – in many ways America remains a victim of its birth and the arguments used to justify that birth several centuries ago. Maybe the wrong side won?

According to the "Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence” a staggering one million Americans have been killed by firearms in the US since the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968. Let’s put that in perspective. That is more than three times the 300,000 American combat deaths in WWII, it’s five times their 200,000 civil war combat deaths and it’s one-third more than the entire 600,000 civil war deaths. In fact since just 1968, the American gun infatuation has taken more American lives than all combat deaths America suffered since 1776.

The socially divisive Vietnam and Korean wars combined took less than 100,000 American lives – less than 10 per cent of the toll Americans weapons have taken on fellow Americans since 1968. Americans have suffered far more at their own hands than anything Hitler, the Kaiser and Osama combined could throw at them. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be hilarious. Indeed, perhaps mocking Americans is the only way to wake them up. For a bunch of pretty smart operators they do seem to have taken a "stupid” pill when it comes to gun control.

Effective lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other like minded groups has been remarkably effective in stopping any attempt at meaningful gun reform. Intellectually vacuous, their answer to the constant firearm massacres is to have more firearms – in schools, in bars and in churches. In fact wherever two people meet, bring a gun. Otherwise sensible civic leaders demand weapons even in kindergartens. To understand such stupidity, you have to go back to their very beginning – 1775 to be precise.

"The British are coming”

The American justification for being armed to the teeth is their Amendment – the "right to bear arms”. This amendment arose out of the months leading up to their War of Independence. Prior to hostilities the Brits tried to disarm their rebellious American cousins before it all went pear shaped. Remember Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to warn the Patriot’s that "the British were coming”. What he was warning about was the British attempt to confiscate weapons in an attempt to lower the "powder keg” temperature. The Patriots would have none of it. So this early attempt to disarm the American populace in 1775 lit the fuse for the war that followed.

Of course when the Second Amendment was passed in 1791, a very well trained musketeer could only fire off a maximum five rounds a minute. By contrast the Bushmaster rifle used in the latest American massacre has an advertised rate of fire of 800 rounds a minute – 160-times more powerful than muskets.

No more tax

Another beef the Patriots had in 1776 was encapsulated in the maxim "no taxation without representation”. Today many within the right wing of the Republican Party have just dropped "without representation” and settled for the similar "no more tax”. They even named themselves "The Tea Party” after the Boston Tea Party of 1773 when Patriots threw taxed British tea over the side of the ship carrying it.

Any analysis of the US fiscal situation today shows that a $US1 trillion per annum US government deficit can only be solved through a combination of higher taxes and lower expenditure. The exact mix of taxes and spending cuts needed to solve this problem is the core of the fiscal cliff debate. Yet the Tea Party, drawing on their dubious historic roots, opposes all attempts at raising taxes. And their activism seems to have captured the Republican Party.

The patriots

One of the reasons why both the NRA and Tea Party have proved so politically adept is because they view themselves as the intellectual heirs to the early Patriots. Criticise the NRA or Tea Party and you might as well as criticise the early Patriots. Well, perhaps it’s time someone did.

Turns out the Patriots were no saints. Take John Hancock, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. He was a wealthy smuggler. Men like Hancock viewed British taxes as an economic impost to be evaded at every turn. As the British made life more difficult for Hancock and his fellow travellers, these smugglers morphed into the fellas’ we refer to today as the "founding fathers”. The Tea Party are indeed the intellectual heirs to such scallywags. Demanding lower tax rates for the rich has its intellectual foundations amongst 18th century smugglers.

Slavery

When George Washington and co-signed the Declaration of Independence they stated "all men are created equal”. Inspiring words. Turns out that was all it mostly was. Most of these founding fathers owned slaves. It was the ultimate Orwellian society – some were more equal than others.

It took another 80 years and a civil war costing the lives of 600,000 Americans before slavery was finally abolished in the US. It was a further 100 years before civil rights were fully recognised for all African Americans. Even today the average "African American” household income is only $32,000. And that’s an average. By contrast the average white household earns $56,000. Few realise that subprime lending, which became infamous in the lead-up to the GFC, was a euphemism for lending to African Americans. So even though an African American sits in the White House, it's fairly clear "all men are created equal” still has a bit of work to do.

By contrast the Brits outlawed slavery within Great Britain before the US War of Independence had even started (1772). They followed up by banning the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery throughout their Empire altogether in 1833. And they didn’t need a civil war to do it. The Brits of course had profited handsomely from the slave trade over the prior century. So my purpose is not to white wash them, simply to point out that relative to the Patriots, the Brits were ahead of the curve.

American Indians

A major reason why frontiersmen joined the American revolution was because Great Britain had a policy of protecting the rights of native Americans. Following the defeat of the French in 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years War, the British tried to reserve lands west of the Appalachians for native Americans. Frontiersman would have none of that. Many wanted land. Like John Hancock, for them it was a monetary issue. After Britain lost in 1783, America spent the better part of the next century stealing almost all remaining native American lands; certainly all the best bits.

The United States was born out of monetary frustration. Americans could see an enormous bounty before them and whether it was taxation without representation or protection of native American lands, the Brits were standing between them and that bounty. In the 230 years since, not much has changed. The holy dollar rules and special interest groups like the NRA and Tea Party hide behind so called patriotism to promote their particular brand of stupidity.

In many ways America remains a victim of its birth and the arguments used to justify that birth several centuries ago. It can be easily argued that American children today are being punished for the sins of their (founding) fathers. Though heretical, it is also tempting to believe the wrong side won the American War of Independence in 1783.

America is today as dysfunctional as at any time since 1865. It’s beset by periodic and random gun violence and seemingly unable to come close to balancing its federal budget. Yet despite its many sins, America through its history has been a force for good. They may have been the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons in anger, but they were instrumental in the overthrow of totalitarian governments of all persuasions over the last century. This tendency to have multiple personalities, baffles the rest of the world. Perhaps Winston Churchill observed it best.

"Americans, can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

The rest of the world despairs at America’s predicament today. Being unable to control their finances is bad enough. Being unable to protect their citizens from themselves is tragic. Watching the massacre of innocents is heartbreaking. In the end I think America will be able to control both its finances and its gun culture. It’s just such a painful process to watch. And I suspect many more innocents will suffer before they get there. God help them.

Mike Mangan has been a stockbroker/fund manager since 1987. From 1992-2005 he was a highly rated Australian media analyst. He has been a regular contributor and guest on various Australian media as well as an expert witness in corporate litigation.