By Alan W. Dowd

Latin American Arms Race
Defense spending has rocketed upward in South America, jumping from $25 billion in 2003 to $38 billion in 2007—a 52 percent increase—as The Economist magazine reports. Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela are spending the most, with Brazil projecting a 50-percent increase in military spending between now and 2011.

There are several causes, including the need for modernization, strong regional economic growth (which has left many South American governments flush with cash), and genuine security threats. Colombia, for instance, continues to battle FARC insurgents. Likewise, Venezuela’s purchase of high-tech warplanes and infantry weaponry has prompted Brazil and Colombia to build up their arsenals.

Keeping Track
With Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence, some are asking, “How many countries are there in the world?”

There’s no easy answer. For a range of reasons—some definitional, others political—the number of countries on earth depends on whom you ask. Kosovo is a case in point. The United States and much of Europe recognize the tiny chunk of what was once Yugoslavia, but Russia, Spain, Serbia and others do not.

Speaking of the “former Yugoslavia,” even countries that everyone recognizes are known by different names. For example, the country the United States calls “Macedonia” is officially recognized as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (or FYROM) by most other countries because of claims by Greece.

The United Nations has 192 member states. Kosovo is not one of them, nor is Taiwan. In fact, Taiwan is in a very strange category. Only 39 countries officially recognize Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China is using its checkbook to make that number smaller every year. Yet Taiwan has booming trade and cultural ties with countries all around the world—and a not-so-tacit promise of protection from the United States, even though Washington does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent state.

For its part, the State Department lists 194 “independent states” but several other “dependencies and areas of special sovereignty”—like Gibraltar, Greenland and Guam. The growth of UN membership:

1945 51
1950  60
1955  76
1960  99
1965  117
1970  127
1975  144
1980  154
1990  159
1992  179
2000  189
2008  192

Hugo’s Gift of Oil
When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez first offered free oil to states in the Northeast—states that depend on heating oil during the winter—New Hampshire declined. But two years later, as the Associated Press reports, with oil prices setting new records, the state has become the last in the region to accept Chavez’s “gift.”

Democratic and Republican politicians in the state initially had rejected Chavez’s stunt, but soaring fuel prices have eroded opposition. When Chavez first offered oil from his country, in 2006, heating oil was $2.50 per gallon. By summer 2008, it had jumped to $4.61 per gallon, and it is expected to hit $5 per gallon this winter, according to AP.

A spokesman for New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch told AP, “The state’s role is to make sure people are aware of the program.” Distribution will be handled by Citizens Energy, a charitable group that offers energy assistance to the poor.

The Great Slump
If you think America is entering another Great Depression, Johns Hopkins economist Steve Hanke says think again. While Hanke concedes “we are entering a serious slump,” he is quick to point out the significant differences between the Depression and today.

He notes that the money supply dropped by 25 percent during the Depression, national income was cut by 53.5 percent and unemployment jumped to 24.7 percent. Most astonishingly, he adds, “Trade (exports plus imports), as apportion of the gross national product, collapsed and didn’t regain its pre-Great Depression levels until the early 1970s.”

In Hanke’s view, “To compare the current crisis to the Great Depression is stretching the facts beyond the breaking point.”

It’s Been Worse
Today's unemployment rate is about 6 percent, and inflation is just over 5 percent. By comparison, unemployment hit 6 percent under Truman, almost 7 percent under Eisenhower, hovered between 7 and 9 percent under Ford and Carter, and spiked at 9.7 percent under Reagan.

Inflation was as high as 7.8 percent under Truman, 6 percent under Nixon, 11 percent under Ford and a staggering 13.5 percent under Carter. To find more such comparisons, visit http://www.miseryindex.us/.

Free States
According to a new study by the Fraser Institute, Delaware and Texas enjoy the highest levels of economic freedom in the United States, while West Virginia has the lowest.

The study, Economic Freedom of North America 2008 Annual Report, employs an “economic freedom index” based on size of government, taxation and labor-market freedom in each state to rank the states. The top 10 states include: Delaware, Texas, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Indiana, Tennessee and Utah.

Joining West Virginia at the other end of the spectrum are Mississippi, Maine, New Mexico, Montana, Hawaii and Rhode Island. To read the full report, visit http://www.fraseramerica.org/.   

As a contributing editor to The American Legion Magazine, Dowd writes columns and news briefs on national security, foreign affairs and U.S. politics each month for the magazine's "Rapid Fire" section.