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Everyone Wants the Cuba Embargo to End

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 1:44 PM EST

According to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, 64 percent of the American public supports establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. And even greater numbers want to get rid of the trade embargo:

Those are remarkable numbers. Everyone supports an end to the embargo by wide margins, even Republicans. I checked all the other crosstabs, and it turns out that ending the embargo is supported by all parties, all ideologies, all sexes, all ages, all races, all education levels, all incomes, and all regions.

The only subgroup that opposes it—barely—is conservative Republicans, who make up about 17 percent of the population. So naturally that means the embargo will stay in place. It no longer really matters what the other 83 percent of us think.

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You Can Go Watch "The Interview" On Christmas After All

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 12:41 PM EST

Update, 12/23/2014: Sony has confirmed the Christmas Day release of The Interview. 

It looks like The Interview may actually be released on Christmas Day!

Independent theaters in Texas and Atlanta are saying that they've received the go-ahead to show the film Thursday. 

The Dallas Morning News has more: "Sources familiar with this morning's conference call say Sony is also going to make the movie available to theaters at a reduced rental rate, as well as put it on a streaming service (not yet named) and video on demand by no later than Christmas."

This is fantastic news for America and for freedom of expression and blah blah blah blah. However, on the downside, it does mean we may actually have to see this stupid movie now.  Still, overall, fantastic news!

God bless America. God bless George Washington. God bless all the Founding Fathers. God bless Thomas Edison for inventing the movie camera. God bless Seth Rogen and James Franco. God bless Kim Jong Un...wait, don't God bless Kim Jong Un. 

Let Us Now Praise Obama's Economic Policies

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 12:38 PM EST
President Barack Obama stands with outgoing Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and current Chair Janet Yellen.

Steve Benen evaluates recent economic news by the standards of Republican promises from two years ago:

  • The Romney Standard: Mitt Romney said during the 2012 campaign that if Americans elect him, he’d get the unemployment rate down to 6% by 2016. Obama won anyway and the unemployment rate dropped below 6% two years faster.
  • The Gingrich Standard: Newt Gingrich said during the 2012 campaign that if Americans re-elected the president, gas prices would reach $10 per gallon, while Gingrich would push gas down to $2.50 a gallon. As of this morning, the national average at the pump is a little under $2.38.
  • The Pawlenty Standard: Tim Pawlenty said trillions of dollars in tax breaks would boost economic growth to 5% GDP. Obama actually raised taxes on the wealthy and GDP growth reached 5% anyway.

Is this fair? Meh. Maybe, maybe not. But there's not likely to be a whole lot of news to blog about today, so why not poke holes in some Republican balloons instead? As Benen says, "By the party’s own standards, Obama is succeeding beautifully. They established the GOP benchmarks and now the Democratic president is the one meeting, and in some cases exceeding, the Republicans’ goals."

The downside of all this is that in the past Democrats haven't promoted their own economic policies plainly enough to get credit now that the economy has finally turned around. Republicans, by contrast, simply cut taxes and then loudly and relentlessly repeat their promise that the economy will improve. Eventually it does, of course. Maybe not a lot, and maybe not for long, but economies always improve eventually. If Kansas ever manages a quarter or two of decent growth, for example, you can be sure that Gov. Sam Brownback will be crowing about it for the rest of his political career.

To some extent, of course, Democrats were stymied in their economic policy, which gave them less to brag about back in 2009. And five years is a long time to wait for a recovery. Still, Dems did pass a stimulus; enact a payroll tax holiday; extend unemployment benefits; pass Obamacare; reform Wall Street; raise taxes on the rich; and pass several jobs bills. It's true that this laundry list doesn't quite have the simple oomph of "Tax cuts will bring the economy roaring back to life!" But it is an economic program, and eventually it got us to where we are today: a pretty good recovery, and one that looks like it might be sustainable since it's not built on the sandy foundations of tax cuts and deficits. Democrats should be louder about demanding more credit for all of this.

Happy Holidays! Economic Growth Finally Starting to Look Robust.

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 10:32 AM EST

Hey, take a look at this. Yet another revision is in, and the Commerce Department now estimates that third-quarter GDP grew at a sizzling 5.0 percent rate, following a nearly-as-good 4.6 percent rate in the second quarter. Part of this is still a make-up for poor growth in the first quarter, but it's good news nonetheless. The economy really does seem to have found a new gear this year:

Tuesday’s report showed stronger-than-expected spending by U.S. consumers, particularly on services like health care. Fixed nonresidential investment also was revised up, signaling more spending by businesses on new buildings and research and development.

“There is a positive feedback loop going on at the moment,” Mike Jakeman, global analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a note. “Job creation is running at the strongest rate for 15 years. More people in work means more income, which means more private spending, which means more business investment, which means more hiring.”

Corporate profits are also up, and the stock market is at new highs every day. Wage growth still needs to get stronger, but it showed signs of life last quarter. All things considered, five years after the Great Recession technically ended, we're finally doing pretty well.

The Cost of US Wars Since 9/11: $1.6 Trillion

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 6:15 AM EST
Marine Infantry Officer Course students stand by before a helicopter drill in Arizona.

The cost of US war-making in the 13 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks reached a whopping $1.6 trillion in 2014, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

The $1.6 trillion in war spending over that time span includes the cost of military operations, the training of security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, weapons maintenance, base support, reconstruction, embassy maintenance, foreign aid, and veterans' medical care, as well as war-related intelligence operations not tracked by the Pentagon. The report tracks expenses through September, the end of the government's 2014 fiscal year. Here's a breakdown of where most of that money went:

The key factor determining the cost of war during a given period over the last 13 years has been the number of US troops deployed, according to the report. The number of troops in Afghanistan peaked in 2011, when 100,000 Americans were stationed there. The number of US armed forces in Iraq reached a high of about 170,000 in 2007.

Although Congress enacted across-the-board spending cuts in March 2013, the Pentagon's war-making money was left untouched. The minimal cuts, known as sequestration, came from the Defense Department's regular peacetime budget. The Pentagon gets a separate budget for fighting wars.

In the spending bill that Congress approved earlier this month, lawmakers doled out $73.7 billion for war-related activities in 2015—$2.3 billion more than President Barack Obama had requested. As Mother Jones' Dave Gilson reported last year, US military spending is on pace to taper far less dramatically in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than it did after the end of the Vietnam War or the Cold War.

Other reports have estimated the cost of US wars since 9/11 to be far higher than $1.6 trillion. A report by Neta Crawford, a political science professor at Boston University, estimated the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as post-2001 assistance to Pakistan—to be roughly $4.4 trillion. The CRS estimate is lower because it does not include additional costs including the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt.

Chart by AJ Vicens.

Putin Ally Says Putin Needs to Make Peace With West

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 1:01 AM EST

Things that make you go hmmm:

Russia faces a “full-blown economic crisis” next year that will trigger a series of defaults and the loss of its investment-grade credit rating, a respected former finance minister has warned. Real incomes will fall by 2-5 per cent next year, the first decrease in real terms since 2000, said Alexei Kudrin, a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin and widely tipped to succeed Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister.

....In unusually blunt comments for an establishment figure, he also called on Mr Putin to do what was necessary to improve relations with the west: “As for what the president and government must do now: the most important factor is the normalisation of Russia’s relations with its business partners, above all in Europe, the US and other countries.”

This gets to be a little like old-school Kremlinology, but I wonder what it means when a longtime Putin ally publicly suggests that Russia needs to mend relations with the West, and do it pronto? Is this really an independent act of truth-telling? Or some kind of semi-sanctioned trial balloon designed to start shifting domestic public opinion? I suppose it's most likely the former, especially considering this little tidbit:

Last March, the Russian leadership considered the possible consequences of sanctions against Russia in connection with the crisis in Ukraine, Civil Initiatives Committee Chairman Alexei Kudrin said...."I provided my assessment of the consequences. The president and prime minister listened to them. I simply paraphrased them and then submitted them in written form to the president's aide," he said.

His report included three possible scenarios for developments in connection with the enactment of sanctions against Russia, Kudrin said.

Hmmm again. This is basically noted without comment, since I don't really quite know what to make of it.

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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 3:18 PM EST

I'm going to keep things simple this year: Mother Jones is great! You already know that if you subscribe to the magazine (which you should) or if you read this blog. But no single source of funding can support what we do, so we rely on multiple sources. And you guessed it: one of them is reader donations.

So if you want to support our great journalism....

Or you just want to support this blog....

Or, hell, if you just want to say thank you to MoJo for providing me with much-needed health insurance this year....

Then how about making a year-end contribution? Small amounts are fine. Large amounts are even better! You can use PayPal or a credit card. Every little bit helps. So thanks for another year of reading my rants and raves, and thanks in advance for whatever donation you can afford. Here are the details:

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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.

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.