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Nothing Matters

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 1:02 PM EST

How are you? Feeling good? Feeling spry? Eager for 2015? Ready to give it your all? Make it the year when it all finally happens? When the stars align and you take those ideas in your mind and that ambition in your belly and match them with piss and vinegar and do something real? Something that will give your life meaning? Something that matters?

To borrow a phrase from some of 2014's most depressingly successful content thieves entrepreneurs, "haha."

Gizmodo:

The three people behind the immensely popular Twitter accounts @HistoryInPics and @EarthPix have raised $2 million from investors...According to TechCrunch, venture firms 500 Startups, Upfront Ventures, and Daher Capital have all thrown in for the social media start-up that as of a year ago was raking in about $50,000 a month. They're now reportedly taking in about $1 million a month.

[The] Twitter accounts have become immensely popular online, amassing millions of followers in less than two years of existence. The company gets its content largely by scraping places like Reddit for images and captions. The only problem? The images are often fake and the captions are often wrong.

Life has no meaning. Nothing matters.

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Someone Needs to Invent a Great Non-Opioid Painkiller

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 12:39 PM EST

Austin Frakt writes about the stunningly widespread use and abuse of narcotic painkillers in the US:

Opioids now cause more deaths than any other drug, more than 16,000 in 2010. That year, the combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen became the most prescribed medication in the United States. Patients here consumed 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone, the opioid in Vicodin. They also consumed 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone, present in Percocet and OxyContin, and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone, the key ingredient in Dilaudid, in 2010. (Some opioids are also used to treat coughs, but that use doesn’t seem to be a major factor in the current wave of problems.)

When I got out of the hospital a couple of months ago, I was in considerable pain. The answer was morphine. For about two weeks, I took a couple of low-dose morphine tablets each day. Then the pain eased and I stopped.

I resisted the morphine at first, and my doctor had to argue me into using it regularly. "You broke a bone in your back," she told me. "Your pain is legitimate. We have a lot of experience treating pain with morphine, and you'll be all right."

I finally listened, and the morphine did indeed work as advertised. But it somehow got me thinking. Morphine? That's the best we can do? This stuff was invented 200 years ago. And while there are newer painkillers around, they're all opioids of one kind or another with all the usual horrible side effects1. How is it that in over a century of research, we still know so little about pain that we haven't been able to create a powerful, non-opioid painkiller?

I'm not really going anywhere with this. I'm just curious. Are there any good books, or even long magazine articles, about this? Why is that even after gazillions of dollars of effort, we're still relying on variants of the opium poppy for serious pain relief? It's the 21st century. How come we can't do better?

1Addiction, nausea, wooziness, constipation, etc.

There Is No Higher Ed Bubble. Yet.

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 10:51 AM EST

Is there a higher-education bubble? Will technology produce cheaper, better alternatives in the near future? Are kids and parents finally figuring out that if Bill Gates can drop out of Harvard and become the richest man in the world, maybe an Ivy League degree isn't actually worth 50 grand a year? Dan Drezner thinks the whole idea is ridiculous, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is:

If, in fact, there really is a higher ed bubble, it should pop before 2020. And if it does pop, then tuition prices for college should plummet as demand slackens. After all, that’s how a bubble works — when it deflates, the price of the asset should plummet in value, like housing in 2008. So who wants to bet me that an average of the 2020 tuition rates at Stanford University, Williams College, Texas A&M and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell will be lower than today?

I’m open to changing the particular schools, but those four are a nice distribution of private and public schools, elite and not-quite-as-elite colleges, with some geographic spread. Surely, true believers in a higher ed bubble would expect tuition rates at those schools to fall.

I really don’t think that will be the case. So anyone who believes in a higher ed bubble should be happy to take the other side of that bet.

Not me. I'd be willing to bet that eventually artificial intelligence will basically wipe out the demand for higher education completely. But "eventually" means something like 30 years minimum, probably more like 40 or 50. Maybe even more if AI continues to be as intractable as some people think it will be.

In the meantime, Drezner is right: the vast, vast majority of college students don't want to strike out on their own and try to become millionaire entrepreneurs. They just want ordinary jobs. And that's a good thing, since if everyone wanted to run their own companies, entrepreneurs wouldn't be able to find anyone to do all the non-CEO scutwork for their brilliant new social media startups.

So if something like 98 percent of college grads are aiming for traditional jobs in which they work for somebody else, guess what? All those somebody elses—which probably includes most of the people who think there's a higher-ed bubble—are going to want to hire college grads. They sure don't want to hire a bunch of losers who were too dim to drop out and become millionaires and couldn't even manage the gumption to accrue 120 units at State U, do they?

Look: the rising cost of higher education has multiple causes, but it's mostly driven by two simple things. At public schools, it's driven by declining state funding, which transfers an increasing share of the cost of higher ed onto students. Unfortunately, I see no reason to think this trend won't continue. At private schools, it's driven by the perception of how much a private degree is worth—and right now, all the evidence suggests that even with fairly astronomical tuitions at elite and semi-elite universities, the lifetime value of a degree is still worth more than students pay for it. Universities understand this, and since these days they mostly think of themselves not as public trusts, but as businesses who simply charge whatever the traffic will bear, they know they still have plenty of headroom to increase tuition. So this trend is likely to continue as well.

If I had to guess, I'd say that there's a class of 2nd or 3rd tier liberal arts colleges that might be in trouble. They have high tuitions, but the value of their degree isn't really superior to that of a state university. They might be in trouble, and if Drezner added one of these places to his list it might make his bet more interesting.

But he'd still win. He might lose by 2040, but he's safe as long as he sticks to 2020.

When Will China Finally Get Tired of Propping Up North Korea?

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 9:53 AM EST

The United States might not have much leverage over North Korea, but China does. Virtually all of North Korea's external trade is with China, and Chinese support is pretty much all that keeps North Korea from collapsing. This means that when the United States wants to pressure Pyongyang, it has limited options as long as Chinese support of the regime remains strong. But how long will that support last? Over the weekend, Jane Perlez of the New York Times reported that it might finally be faltering:

When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

....The parlous state of the relationship between North Korea and China was on display again Wednesday when Pyongyang commemorated the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and failed to invite a senior Chinese official.

The last time a Chinese leader visited North Korea was in July 2013 when Vice President Li Yuanchao tried to patch up relations, and pressed North Korea, after its third nuclear test in February 2013, to slow down its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Li failed in that quest....After the vice president’s visit, relations plummeted further, entering the icebox last December when China’s main conduit within the North Korean government, Jang Song-thaek, a senior official and the uncle of Kim Jong-un, was executed in a purge. In July, President Xi Jinping snubbed North Korea, visiting South Korea instead. Mr. Xi has yet to visit North Korea, and is said to have been infuriated by a third nuclear test by North Korea in February 2013, soon after Kim Jong-un came to power.

So does this mean that China might help us out in our current dispute with North Korea over the Sony hack? Probably not—or not much, anyway. North Korea's very weakness is also its greatest strength: if it collapses, two things would probably happen. First, there would be a flood of refugees trying to cross the border into China. Second, the Korean peninsula would likely become unified and China would find itself with a US ally right smack on its border. Given the current state of Sino-American relations, that's simply not something China is willing to risk.

Not yet, anyway. But who knows? There are worse things in the world than a refugee crisis, and relations with the US have the potential to warm up in the future. One of these days North Korea may simply become too large a liability for China to protect. If that ever happens, North Korea's lifespan can probably be measured in years or months.

The Most Comprehensive Overview Yet of the Kinks' Glorious Youth

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EST

The Kinks
The Anthology—1964-1971
Sanctuary/BMG

The Kinks' early years have been rehashed repeatedly over the last two decades, so don't expect any major revelations from yet another archival dig. However, The Anthology—1964-1971 offers the most comprehensive overview yet of the London band's glorious youth. With five discs and 140 tracks, this massive set is hardly for the casual listener. It includes demos, rehearsal snippets, alternate takes, and obscure mixes in the service of luring hardcore fans who think they've already heard it all. It traces the Kinks' rapid evolution from a scrappy R&B band playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard covers to purveyors of furious rockers like "You Really Got Me" (arguably an inspiration for heavy metal and punk) to Ray Davies' emergence as a singularly gifted writer who delivers wry social commentary on "A Well Respected Man," attains magical beauty with "Waterloo Sunset," and engages in subversive gender-bending in "Lola." At their most elegant, the lads still displayed a strong rock and roll streak, thanks to brother Dave Davies' wicked lead guitar and Mick Avory's thrashing drums. And while the Kinks continued making strong music into the '90, these amazing recordings are their best.

Soundtrack for a Police-Brutality Protest

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EST
Police move in as marchers push a cart of sound equipment in Oakland, CA

The sun was setting as the Millions March began to disperse in downtown Oakland, California. Thousands of people had taken to the streets throughout the day to show solidarity and outrage over the slew of high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans by police. With coordinated marches held around the country, it had been a day of signs and banners, impassioned speeches, and pointed but peaceful demonstrations.

As evening fell, a second march was about to begin. A young man in a black hoodie, his face hidden behind a red bandana, shouted "Fuck the police!" through a megaphone as hundreds filed into the intersection behind him—the tone of this march was markedly darker.

"It's hard to describe," Brian said. "You go on a march without music—there's a difference."

In Oakland, anger over racism in the criminal justice system is always simmering beneath the surface. But the grand jury decisions to not indict the officers responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, had fueled continuing protests around the Bay Area. Graffiti scrawled across street signs and boarded-up businesses reflected the shouted sentiments that could be heard over sirens and helicopters, echoing through the streets each night.

But something made this march stand apart. Among the marchers was a cart stacked with two PA speakers, an amplifier, an inverter, and a couple of deep-cycle batteries to power the setup. With nearly $4,000 worth of equipment, the music cart added a dimension missing from the previous protests. At dusk, people followed the sound to join the march, pausing to circle around the cart and dance to the rhythm booming through the speakers.

Brian, the cart's owner, who asked that I not publish his last name, told me he started bringing his sound system to demonstrations as part of Occupy Oakland back in 2010. A student who works part time in sound production and theater design, Brian was happy to step up when march organizers asked him to. "I think music helps crowds stay together and it helps people feel more empowered. It's hard to describe," he said, with a pause. "You go on a march without music—there's a difference."

"I think it is super-important, as a white person in this movement, that I take a backseat."

Brian's selections, some of which were penned on these very streets, reflected the sentiments of the marchers. "I think in a lot of ways music enables protests to be something that is fun and joyous while still matching the angry mood," he told me. "That is balance that you have to strike." He emphasized that his role was strictly one of support. "I think it is super-important, as a white person in this movement, that I take a backseat. I am trying to be very careful not to lead the march with the sound system, and it is very important to play music that people are enjoying in the crowd."

Police presence was felt throughout the night, but around 6:30 pm, following scattered acts of vandalism, an Oakland Police intercom boomed instructions to disperse, warning the hundreds of marchers that their assembly was unlawful. Anyone there, regardless of purpose, was subject to arrest, which could "result in personal injury," the police warned. The march continued even after police ran at the crowd, causing some protesters to scatter momentarily. But the music kept playing and people kept marching.

Some volunteered to help push the cumbersome equipment—nearly 200 pounds of it—over grassy knolls, through stopped traffic, and away from police who attempted to corral protesters into kettles, a common crowd-control tactic. Others gave Brian song requests.

He tried his best to match their moods, switching from heavier, more strident songs to upbeat classics like the Commodores' "Brick House" and Michael Jackson hits to calm the crowd during police confrontations. "At that point we had broken out of those kettles," he said, "and it is a little bit of a scary moment—a moment in which we won, which is great, but I think people were a little on edge." The music seemed to do the trick; marchers could be seen dancing past a growing number police vans and squad cars.

The victory wouldn't last long, though. Around eight o'clock, the group around the sound system danced right into a police kettle and was quickly surrounded. The police silenced and confiscated Brian's gear and began arresting people. Officers from 11 different agencies made 45 arrests that night in Oakland, and Brian was among them. He was released quickly though, and he says people can expect to see him and his sound system out on the streets again soon.

Here's a sampling of songs he played last week:

"Lovelle Mixon"—Mistah F.A.B. feat. Magnolia Chop:

"Fuck Tha Police"—Lil Boosie:



"We Ain’t Listenin' (Remix)"—Beeda Weeda, J Stalin:


"N.E.W. Oakland"—Mistah F.A.B.:


"Hyphy"—Federation feat E-40:


"Don’t Snitch"—Mac Dre:


"G Code"—Geto Boys:


"California Love"—2Pac feat. Dr. Dre:


"Fuck Tha Police"—N.W.A.:


"Rock With You" – Michael Jackson:


"September"—Earth, Wind, and Fire:

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A Majority of Cop Killers Have Been White

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 8:59 PM EST
Investigators work at the scene where two NYPD officers were shot in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on Saturday.

As officials continue to investigate Saturday's tragic killing of two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, details have surfaced about the suspect, 28 year old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who allegedly shot a woman in Baltimore before traveling to New York. Anti-police posts he appears to have published on social media sites prior to the killings have lead many to connect his crime to protests that occurred in previous weeks, and some commenters have cast blame on officials including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Attorney General Eric Holder, and President Obama, all of whom have condemned the violence. (Read my colleague Kevin Drum's response to that.) 

But, while every killing of an officer is a tragedy, it is worth noting, as my colleague Shane Bauer reported in the context of another story, assaults and felony killings of police officers in the US are down sharply over the past two decades. Attention has also been focused on Brinsley's race, but FBI data shows that, though African Americans are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than whites, the majority of assailants who feloniously killed police officers in the past year were white. 

No, There Really Isn't Much We Can Do To Retaliate Against North Korea

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 2:59 PM EST

A couple of days ago I wrote a post suggesting that there might not really be much we can do to retaliate against North Korea, who the FBI blames for the Sony hack. So I was curious to read "A Reply to Kim’s Cyberterrorism," a Wall Street Journal editorial telling us what options we had. I figured that if anyone could make the best case for action, it was the Journal.

Unfortunately, they mostly just persuaded me that there really is very little we can do. After clearing their throats with a couple of suggestions that even they admit are mostly just symbolic, they get to the meat of things:

Earlier this year [Rep. Ed Royce] introduced the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which gives Treasury the power it needs to sanction banks facilitating North Korea’s finances. It passed the House easily in July but has since been locked up in Harry Reid’s Senate at the behest of the Obama Administration. Mr. Royce tells us he plans to reintroduce the bill as a first order of business in the new Congress. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez has introduced similar legislation in the Senate; a bill could be on Mr. Obama’s desk by the second week in January.

So....that's it. And even this is weaker tea than the Journal suggests. For starters, the bill has a serious structural problem because it puts severe limits on the president's power, which is why Obama hasn't supported it in the past. It's a bad idea in foreign relations for Congress to mandate sanctions that can then be lifted only by Congress. This makes it almost impossible for presidents to negotiate future agreements because they have no carrots to offer in return for good behavior.

But that could be fixed. What can't be fixed is the fact that North Korea learned a lesson from our previous attempt at tightening economic sanctions in 2007, when we cut off the US links of Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank suspected of doing business with North Korea. This in turn panicked other Macau banks into cutting off their relationships with North Korea, which severely restricted the regime's access to dollars. As the Journal notes, this genuinely hurt North Korea, and the Bush administration agreed to resolve the BDA issue during the Six-Party nuclear talks later that year.

Unfortunately for us, sanctions like this would hurt North Korea a lot less now than they did back in 2007. Stephan Haggard explains:

Post-BDA, and since the ascent of Kim Jong-un in particular, North Korea has also sought to diversify its trade, investment and financial links. The KPA and its associates have developed relationships with financial entities that are not concerned with access to the U.S. market, both in China and outside it; Russia will be particularly interesting to watch in this regard but there is also the open field of the Middle East....While this legislation might raise the costs of proliferation activities if implemented, it is unlikely to staunch them completely and could simply forge new networks beyond the law's reach.

Another question is whether the sanctions will have the broader strategic effect of moving the North Koreans toward serious negotiation of its nuclear program....The paradoxical feature of sanctions is that they rarely have the direct effect of forcing the target country to capitulate. The HR 1771 sanctions will have effect only when coupled with strong statements of a willingness to engage if North Korea showed signs of interest in doing so. The legislation provides plenty of sticks; the administration will have to continue to articulate the prospective carrots in a way that is credible. Strong sanctions legislation makes that difficult to do if the legislation places a series of binding constraints on the president's discretion. Why negotiate with the U.S. if there is no return from doing so?

With changes, Royce's sanctions bill might be an appropriate response to the Sony hack. However, it's unlikely to have a severe effect on North Korea. Even worse, past history shows that a single-minded "get tough" attitude toward the DPRK can backfire badly, as it did on George Bush when his refusal to negotiate with Pyongyang in 2002 led in short order to the ejection of UN inspectors and the construction of plutonium bombs from a stockpile that had previously been kept under lock and key.

As the cliche goes, there are no good options here, just bad and less bad. I wouldn't necessarily oppose a modified version of the sanctions bill, but it's unlikely to have a major impact. It might even make things worse. If this is the best we can do, it's pretty much an admission that there's not really much we can do.

Let's Blame Conservatives For All the Killings They're Responsible For

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 11:41 AM EST

Via Atrios, here is America's-mayor-for-life Rudy Giuliani commenting on the killing of two New York City police officers yesterday by a deranged gunman:

“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said during an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. “The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

....The former mayor also criticized President Barack Obama, Holder, and Al Sharpton for addressing the underlining racial tensions behind the failure to indict the white police officers who killed [Eric Garner on Staten Island] and Mike Brown in Ferguson. “They have created an atmosphere of severe, strong, anti-police hatred in certain communities. For that, they should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

Fair enough. But I assume this means we can blame Bill O'Reilly for his 28 episodes of invective against "Tiller the Baby Killer" that eventually ended in the murder of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. We can blame conservative talk radio for fueling the anti-government hysteria that led Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City. We can blame the relentless xenophobia of Fox News for the bombing of an Islamic Center in Joplin or the massacre of Sikh worshippers by a white supremacist in Wisconsin. We can blame the NRA for the mass shootings in Newtown and Aurora. We can blame Republicans for stoking the anti-IRS paranoia that prompted Andrew Joseph Stack to crash a private plane into an IRS building in Austin, killing two people. We can blame the Christian Right for the anti-gay paranoia that led the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with signs that carried their signature "God Hates Fags" slogan. We can blame Sean Hannity for his repeated support of Cliven Bundy's "range war" against the BLM, which eventually motivated Jerad and Amanda Miller to kill five people in Las Vegas after participating in the Bundy standoff and declaring, "If they're going to come bring violence to us, well, if that's the language they want to speak, we'll learn it." And, of course, we can blame Rudy Giuliani and the entire conservative movement for their virtually unanimous indifference to the state-sanctioned police killings of black suspects over minor offenses in Ferguson and Staten Island, which apparently motivated the murder of the New York police officers on Saturday.

Or wait. Maybe we can't do any of those things. Maybe lots of people support lots of things, and we can't twist that generalized support into blame for maniacs who decide to take up arms for their own demented reasons. Maybe that's a better idea after all.

Here Is President Obama's Statement on Today's Tragedy In New York

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 1:17 AM EST

Two NYPD officers were murdered in cold blood Saturday by a gunman who then killed himself before being apprehended. Details are still sketchy, but New York is at fever pitch right now. Some people are trying to blame this horrendous tragedy on Bill de Blasio, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, and the thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets over the last few weeks to protest the decisions of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand juries.

Here's President Obama's statement from tonight making clear that he "unconditionally condemns today's murder of two police officers." The fact that he has to make that clear at all—as though there was a chance he may have been undecided on the issue—is surreal.