• Why does America love a jail?

    Prison bars casting a shadow
    Send that boy to jail! (Photo by Uriel Soberanes)

    ‘Lock her up, lock her up, lock her up!’

    Remember the Trump rally chant? Well, Hillary Clinton isn’t the only American they want in jail. Incarceration is a top US pastime. Why?


    The figures are genuinely amazing. 2.3 million people – the equivalent of the entire population of Botswana. America’s prison population is larger than any other country in real terms and per capita.

    That’s ANY OTHER COUNTRY. Not just where you live, which is probably the UK (4.5 times lower) or maybe Europe or Australia, if my blog is really starting to fly. No, anywhere…

    Let’s face it, there are some pretty populous and pretty repressive places out there. But none of them – not China, not Russia, not El Salvador, not Turkmenistan – can touch The Land of the Free. How the hell?


    The US government is not to blame. No, the federal government locks up people at a lower rate than France or Italy. It’s the states and local districts.

    Individual American states love jailing people. It hasn’t reduced violence or crime rates in America. It costs Americans a lot of money. I’ll leave the ‘Why is America so Violent?’ debate for another day, just soak up this stat:

    If US states were independent countries, they would take the Top 20 spots in the league table of prison populations per capita globally.

    A full deck. Slam dunk. You can’t get near that.


    For more, read this article in The Economist

  • Selling the USA everyday

    retail clothing with US cities and states
    Get your USA themed clothes everywhere!

    This is a very quick, hit-and-run random cross-section of clothes for sale on one floor of a major high street fashion retailer. Notice the theme? This was a kids’ department, so even in the 0-24 months section, we are already feeding our kids with a 100%—yes, 100%—visual diet of Team USA. Why?

    Repeat until it’s invisible

    What I realised as I shopped for my toddler was that I don’t even notice the endless USA USA USA anymore. I imagine most people don’t. For some reason I just picked up on the fact that every piece of clothing that had a word on it, had a word denoting the USA. Every single one.

    US themed clothing
    Yet more variations on the USA theme

    This is not an anti-US rant

    I love America. Sorry to get all Donald Trump on you, but I’ve been there, and it’s great. Even before I went there, I knew it was great. It has been—without question—the greatest cultural influence on my life barring—possibly—my native country of Britain.

    But why—in an age that’s apparently all about limitless choice, individual expression, finding your unique style—is the only graphic choice on the clothes we are sold that of the USA. You can have anything you want—LA, NYC, Chicago, Phoenix, Arizona, California, Hawaii—but only, only if it falls within the borders of the United States of America.

    USA themed clothes
    You’re kidding me. No, I’m not. This photo shoot took me less than 5 minutes

    How crazy is that?

    Where is the Vancouver, British Columbia T-shirt? Why can’t I wear München, Bavaria underpants? Why can’t my son buy a baseball cap (yes, I know, a baseball cap) with Provence written on it? Yeah, I know, I’m sure he could if he scoured the internet. They’re all Western countries, right?

    But what about my Dar-es-Salaam T-shirt? What about his Ceará, Brasil undies? Is a Bamako, Mali baseball cap just beyond the pale?

    If you work in fashion retail, pitch this at your next brainstorm meeting. Go on, I dare you!

  • Where is the USA on a map?

    A map of the United States
    The USA: just lines on a map? (Photo by John-Mark Smith)

    Is there anything as immutable as the map of the USA in today’s political geography? Its shape is like a branding iron on the surface of North America — an indelible shape. Yet the accidents of history that brought it about — like all states — was revealed to me on a road trip around Washington State.

    As I drove north through the state of Oregon, I came to a dramatic natural barrier — the vast Columbia River. It is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, with a basin of 258,000 square miles, running from the Rockies out into the Pacific Ocean. It feels like a serious boundary line — and it nearly was.

    As you cross a tall steel bridge over the river, you enter a town called Vancouver. But wait, surely too soon? Nope, this is Vancouver, Washington State. It is 300 miles almost due south of Vancouver, British Columbia, and is some 29 years older. It is the original Vancouver, and was very nearly the boundary between the USA and Canada.

    The Oregon Question

    It all came down to the Oregon boundary dispute between Britain (which owned Canada) and the USA. This was in the 1840s, by which time Russia and Mexico no longer laid any claim to the Pacific Northwest. The USA wanted everything north to Alaska, and Britain everything south to California, but soon the dispute focused in on one area: modern-day Washington State.

    The two sides eventually agreed on the 49th Parallel, until the Strait of Georgia. The border was then to follow the channel south, making all of Vancouver Island Canadian, as it is today. But the San Juan Islands in the channel remained disputed until 1872, when German Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrated on the dispute and gave the islands to — you guessed it — the USA.

    A lovely postscript

    Point Roberts, a tiny tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula just south of Vancouver, BC, which lies below the 49th Parallel, but east of the Strait of Georgia, is American soil to this day, despite its population of a little over 1,000 having to travel 25 miles through Canada to reach the rest of the USA.

    For more on how the borders of the USA were made, listen to Misha Glenny’s excellent episode The Borderlands, from the BBC Radio 4 series How to Invent a Country