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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.

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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.

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....

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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.

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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 2011*. 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:

Correction: The original version of this article misidentified the year the Occupy Oakland protests began.

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.