Yankee Blog

Friday, October 31, 2003

A new thing...

I am kind of in a hurry this morning to get on with assorted moving logistics (you wouldn't know it by the time of this post, but I have already accomplished a lot). Anyway, instead of posting some stuff that is mine I want to quote a series of comments on Drezner's web site. Specifically the comments written by someone going by the name of Oldman in response to a Drezner post on Clark. The comments drift away from the topic of the post, but they are excellent, they say what I want to say better than I would, and I just want people reading this blog to know that there are excellent even-handed voices in a world where extremism rules the day. Anyway, here they are:

Comment #1:As a classic-conservative and not a neo-con, here is my summary Iraq policy. First and foremost, we need counter-insurgency troops. We need to saturate Baghdad with sniper teams using 50 cal rifles that can kill a man a mile away. We need special ops guys that slither down ropes from Helicopters, and we need to organize them in Fast Reaction Teams that are in the air and whenever a convoy is hit then BAAM we drop the hammer on the attackers. We need the exact same kind of radar-tracking return fire that we had in the main assault phase, so whenever the Iraqis shoot mortars at us we track the fire and return it ... BAAM ... they're dead.

We need to do a bootcamp and fast-track OCS school to put at least 1000 Arabic speaking officers trained in civil affairs on the ground in 3 months. Preferably two or three thousand if we can get them. We need to expand military recruitment to prepare for the rotation schedule to maintain at least 150,000 soldiers in country for at least two more years. We need to improve supply line safety by consolidating bases and establishing 24/7 secured "lines of communication". We need to get Arabic speaking plains-clothes intel agents on the ground, dedicated solely to rooting out with bribes and networking all Resistance forces and foreign militants. And we need another thousand or so of them ASAP. We need Iraqi forces to do checkpoints or we comepletely abandon them. US forces manning checkpoints except at secure facilities only breeds resentment and makes them targets. We need to abandon and then demolish the Green Zone to prevent it from being used as a symbol, and then move all CPA operations to a more secure location right outside of Baghdad. We need to assign long in-country rotations - recruited with heavy bonuses if necessary - military civil affairs officers (speaking Arabic of course) that will stay as troops are rotated in and out and assigned to the rural areas and towns all around Iraq at the provincial level. We need PRT teams and a big expansion of them like how the model teams in Afghanistan worked.

And that's just on the military side. On the civilian side there is allot we can do - rescind the foreign privatization order and instead create a micro-lending capital investment fund tha will make small business loans to Iraqis in order to start businesses and make money. We need to get allot of solar and wind turbine power stations as well as hydrogen fuel cells and distribute them to critical facilities like oil refineries and water purification plants so that they can operate 24/7 without interruption. We need to decentralize the power grid and ...

Well you get the idea. There is *allot* that can be done better, and most of it will require some cost but it will be allot cheaper than not doing it.

Comment #2:
Under normal circumstances, I would never consider it - but if a Democratic candidate offered me a position as an adviser I would accept on that off possibility it actually happened (as I would also serve if asked by Bush). At this point, even France has come out and said that the world cannot afford to allow the United States to be driven out of Iraq. DeVillipen is correct. It would literally set back civilization.

As for allies, let's not forget the South Koreans, Taiwanese, Indonesians, Italians, Spainards, Portugese, and Russian (as well as Japanese civil works guys)- why not we already got Polish and Ukranian troops there. As for discounting them, if the Bush admin as ready to count the Solomon islands in with the "coalition of the willing" we should seriously look at these other alternatives. Boots per square inch count. It's not all that counts, but it counts. Shinsheki knew this.

As for chain of command, an acceptable alternative has already been proposed. A multilateral framework with an American supreme allied commander. As for awarding contracts why not set up an open bidding system, with international reconstruction types, the CPA, and Iraqis each having a roughly equal say and a final CPA veto. American companies can compete just like everyone else. Or is anyone here willing to say that American companies can't compete in a fair contest?

We don't have to apologize or retract currently assigned contracts. Let's just say that the USA needed to get stuff started quickly, so we didn't have time to open up bids. Doing microlending and bidding out contracts fairly and to local Iraqis would win us much goodwill at little cost. Allot of the specialized work anyway can only be done by hi-tech companies like American ones so we need have no fear we'll be cut out.

Iraq is too important to the National Security of the United States of America to be allowed to fail. It didn't have to be that way. Things could have gone better before now. But the important thing is that they are handled better from now on. However, reality is that it is highly unlikely that me or anyone else who knows what they're doing will be allowed anywhere near the process. Certainly, one of my first acts would to be offer Daniel here a position. That is not flattery. He's got a good head, and we need more of those in charge desperately.

Comment #3:
I forgot to answer your question about greater mobilization. Ruling out the draft, there are several alternatives. Rumsfeld's idea of converting military bueracrats into foot soldiers is a non-starter. There will always be some positions too sensitive for commercial contractors and too dangerous overseas.

Essentially Congress has to raise the ceiling on the size of the military. No one has ever found a way to squeeze a better logistics to combat personnel ratio. It may be possible. Let's not try in the middle of military action.

What Rumsfeld did have right is that there are allot of hi-tech military equipment programs that can be cut. I favor the hi-tech bombers - they've proven their worth. The stealth joint force fighter / Raptor program can be safely junked however. There is no longer a dogfighter race with Russia, we own the skies. Osprey can join Crusader, and we can cut back missile defense to a robust research component instead of building an inoperational weapon.

We then turn that money around and put it into recruiting, hiring, pay, equipping, training, etc. men and women. We could also save if we split the men and women's training command into separate units and then allow them to serve together- something recommended by the original civilian comittee. Frankly, the sex aspect is a distraction in basic training.

As Hackworth has pointed out, we need to get back to basics in basic training - orienteering using GPS and environment, pushups and obstacle courses, shooting at larger rangers, small unit tactics, strategic coordination, and deploying in hostile zones from troop carriers.

Plus simply bottom line, more troops with appropriate speciality training after basic training. That takes money. We can get it by culling boondoogle programs out of the military. If the branches are pissed off, we can tell them the money they cut will go back into military personnel in their own branches. So it'll be a reallocation instead of a redistribution.

The greatest military asset is the prepared mind, the iron will, and the discipline of training. Let's reinvest in the American soldier.

Comment #4:
Oops forgot one last factor. We got the guys we need to go in now and do everything I said. The reason why we're holding back is that if we committed them we wouldn't have anyone to replace them in the rotation schedule. The key would be to commit the troops upfront and start the training and force recruitment and training programs so that when the current guys are ready to go home, we can replace them with the newly trained ones. The only thing that would a literal crash-course would the modified OCS Arabic interpreter program, because we need those guys there yesterday.

Comment #5:
The Bush admin fetish with executive privledge and secrecy is creating at the very least the appearance of impropriety. And as Arnold noted, where there is smoke there usually is at least something smoldering. It's bad when the *Republican* head of the 911 committee has to threaten to use subpoena powers to get the Admin to stop dragging its feet. But that's Bush for you, promise one thing in public - to give the commission what it wants - and have your deputies do the opposite in private.

Comment #6:
Clarke was taken for granted by both Administrations. The frustration over the foreign policy wallow was part of my beef against Clinton. Failure to execute and follow through on the part of the Bush Administration has worsened the problem and raised the stakes. Not only are we not safer than before 911, we are less safe than *after* 911. There was nothing wrong with the general neo-con idea. Wolfowitz if nothing else seems a genuinely good person.

*However* the neo-cons were pathetically naive and taken in by confidence men among the exiles and tricked by their own eagerness to believe what they wanted to hear. Worse, they failed to listen to the voices of reason in their own cabal such as Bill Kristol who has criticized the conduct of the occupation. As for deluded men like Cheney, they are completely out of touch with reality.

Such gullible chumps have no business in running the most powerful nation in the world engaged in the what is currently its most harrowing military venture in decades. So says this classic-conservative. President Bush would be well inclined to listen to those voices of sanity within his own party - Warner, Lugar, Hagel, McCain, Graham, etc. who are giving him much better advice.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Another comment...

The City Comforts blog comments on a post in Winds of Change regarding the situation in California. I can't resist making a sprawling comment on the built environment of California:

California might not have twice as many people as it can hold, but it might have twice as many people as it is designed to hold. The key here is not the number of people, but the design.

It is almost not worth talking about the "design" of California, but let's just throw a few terms out there: suburbs, freeways, lawns, single family houses, subdivisions, ranches. The problem is that too many Californians try to live like ranchers when they should be trying to live like merchants. I remember my first impressions of LA and it was almost like being in a foreign country. Everything was the same, but just a bit different. How is it possible that so many people live over so much space and are still considered one place? It is remarkable, but as growth continues outward, instead of inward, it just seems increasingly unstable.

I lived in San Francisco, and the abiliy to live in a "real" city with a climate like that was amazing. I commuted to Palo Alto part of the time, and there were parts of that town which were excellent, great coffee shops next to offices, next to a train station, next to residential areas. I spent a significant amount of time in Santa Monica, and I loved that too with the same mixed use (minus the rail) and right over the Pacific Ocean. In fact, most of my experiences with California go against most of the stereotypes of how it is built, but when I see the shots of the fires that is exactly how California looks in the national imagination. I think that people often overstate the case of how California is built, and that there is such a rejection of density in California, but the sprawl is there as well, and it is dangerous.

Last thing is the sad bit of irony in the image of people camping in sports stadiums. I have sat through many slide shows on the history of urbanism, and one of the images that sticks in my head is a picture of a town in the middle ages that has entirely retreated into the old Roman arena that was once the center of town. Commerce and city activities were in such decline that a town that once had the resources to build an arena, now lived only in the arena. It was a telling image on the decline of urbanism in the so-called "dark ages" and the picture of San Diego clustered in the stadium recalls that same image of thriving urban life clustered in fear from outside forces.

A Comment...

There was a story in the NYT about Clark blaming Bush for 9/11. David Adesnik of the Oxblog jumped on Clark for this, and seemed to be lumping Clark's claim in with those who want to create the impression that Bush planned the attacks. Drezner put this together with some other critiques of the Clark campaign by Josh Marshall. I kind of feel this is, in the words of Dick Cheney (the most reprehensible person leading our nation) a "tempest in a teapot." My comment on Drezner's site:

I think Adesnik is making a big deal about a pretty basic line of criticism, and one that I am surprised we don't hear more often.

It sounds to me that what Clark was saying is that 9/11 happenend on Bush's watch. Regardless of where in the government were the missed leads and the miscommunications, the fact remains that these occured in a government run, ultimately, by Bush. Now this is not to blame Bush for 9/11 in the way that some might (i.e. he willfully missed cues or knew of the attack), but it is just to throw some bad light on his management and his "team".

I would normally ignore this kind of criticism has partisan attacks that have no real merit, but they do pique some interest when the 9/11 commission is having trouble getting files and information from the White House.

This is what gets me, and it is I think the reason for the attack by Clark linking Bush to 9/11. How is it possible that the Administration can't be doing everything possible to help us figure out how this happenend, where were the missed hints, and thus giving us the greatest ability to stop something like this from ever happening again? There might be nothing in the White House of any value to the 9/11 commission, but it seems like there is very limited downside for Bush to just letting the people serving on that commission figure it out for themselves.

As for Marshall's critique of the Clark Campaign, I just hope that the General is able to get things moving again. It would be unfortunate if the opposition to Bush was less a person to represent the rest of the country, and more someone selected just because a voice of many people could not get organized.

What I want...

There has been some news lately that has asked me to rethink what I want to have happen in the world. On Sunday there was the news that Wolfowitz hotel was hit by a rocket strike, then throughout this week there have been the bombings in Iraq, and then today there is the news that economic growth exploded in the last quarter.

My problem is that a part of me greeted the good news with apprehension and the bad news with satisfaction. Any amount of thought or reflection led to me realize that attacks and bombings are bad and economic growth is good. The feelings going the other way were just due the fact that what is bad is bad for President Bush and thus good. However, I cannot say it strongly enough, this thinking is wrong.

An unstable Iraq would be dangerous for years to come. The place was messed up. We went in thinking that fixing it would be easy. We were wrong. I want those who are wrong to be exposed and held accountable. But what's done is done, and Iraq is now our problem. We need to make it better, even if that is far more expensive than envisioned a year ago or a few months ago.

I have said many times that I don't hold Bush accountable for the faltering American economy. I think that his policies are counter-productive towards the end of keeping the American economy the strongest in the world, but I think they have little to do with economic cycles. Just the same I don't give Bush any credit for any return of economic growth to America. Business cycles are a fact of life, and while they have tremendous impact on the nation, there is little that the President of the nation can do to control them. The President can pass policies that favor or work against long-term competitiveness, but those do not have short-term effects. It is my belief that the tax cuts Bush has passed, the deficit we are running, and the future decline in government programs are going to have a very adverse effect on our economy. I think it will take away resources from long-term investment in infrastructure and knowledge, I think it will hurt our education system, and I think that it will lead to increased social polarity. Of course I don't expect many of these things to be big issues in the next election, but I would much rather put an end to these foolish policies today than wait 10 years when the harm done to our nation will be that much greater.

Short-term political games bother me. The criticism of the President's policies should be consistent and direct. The news of the day should not have much of a factor in it. It really doesn't matter if one or one hundred attacks occur against Americans in Iraq, the fact is that we are there because of mismanagement and/or lies by the Bush administration and that we need to stay there to finish the job.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Transit issues in cities...

I recently completed an apartment hunt in Boston. One of my major considerations was to be close to public transit and to a shopping district. The latter was because of a desire to live in a place where my living space includes public space, and I think that I found that in the Davis Square area. The former was because of an uncertain car situation. This is all just an introduction to some comments on the Bus v. Rail issue, particular to the Boston area and relating to this recent story in the Boston Globe (via Planetzien).

In my previous experience in Boston for two years my most frequent commute was on a bus line that ran from 50 meters from my house to 50 meters from my office. It was quite convienent, but still had some issues, and I did drive occasionally. The story in the Globe seems to indicate that those problems are all related to the fact that buses get caught in traffic. I tend to disagree with this assessment. The bus schedule was actually quite often correct in the time to get from point A to point B at different times of the day. If memory serves there was some variation, but it was not that signficant. The main problem with bus travel in Boston is the frequency of the bus. Taking the bus requires knowing the schedule and planning trips. This in contrast to the T where service is much more frequent, and while trip time is variable due to different waiting times, you can depend on a train coming without too much waiting.

If Boston is serious about using Buses instead of rail to expand the transit system I think they need to have a committment to putting more buses on the road and running those buses frequently at all hours. They also need to do a much better job at publishing easy to read bus maps that show how to get from point A to point B. Rail has fixed stops, easy transfers, and well labelled routes. Buses in Boston are hard to find, it is hard to figure out when you have arrived at your destination, and they are unreliable.

The contrast between buses in London and Boston could not be more clear. In London traffic could be an issue for buses (although less so after the congestion charge), but the buses were so regular that waiting was not a problem. The bus system in London is very thorough (and thus complicated), but figuring it out was made easy by clear signs at every stop and the well-designed spider maps. Additionally the time of travel was made clear at bus stations and was remarkably close to correct. If you wanted to get from the City to West London the tube was almost always a quicker trip, but the Tube was so crowded that for many trips I would choose a bus instead. In Boston it is no contest. The T is often empty, or close to it, while it is hard to find a bus.

I think that the traffic argument is made because it is the one big advantage of rail, but in reality the reason that buses suck in Boston could be fixed and the transit system made better at a lower cost.

A story to watch...

One of my top three blog-sites is Talking Points Memo (FYI: the other two are Oxblog and Drezner). TPM is typically excellent and exceptional, since Josh Marshall is a real reporter working on real issues, rather than just a commentator. Anyway a few days ago he had a post intimating that Dick Cheney was someone involved in the forgery of the Niger Uranium documents. These documents you will recall are the start of the Valerie Plame story as it was these documents that caused the CIA to send Joseph Wilson to go to Niger to investigate Iraq's pursuit of Yellowcake which led Joe Wilson speaking out against the administration which led to someone in the adminstration leaking his wife's identity as a CIA NOC agent, which led to the justice department investigation of the leak, which we are still waiting to find out where that will lead. Simple right?

Anyway, TPM is usually very scrupulous about stories and making clear what is true and what is opinion. He is not one to make outrageous claims and then not back them up. This is why this post was so intriguing. It was basically just raising questions. Questions that imply something was done wrong by someone important, but not presenting any evidence, or names of who that might be.

Since this post there has not been a blogoverse explosion, but a few have commented on the story. Needlenose (a pro-Dem blogger) suspects that this is all going to lead to the Iraqi National Congress and Chalabi with Cheney having some involvement. A few more fervent Bush-hating blogs (see Not Watching Television) are waiting to see where this goes, but not offering speculation. Meanwhile the right side of the blogoverse is silent. I don't really blame them, but if there is anything to this story it will be facinating to see how it gets spun. Assuming there is some link between the forgers and Cheney is there my guess is that the White House will stick to a line that Cheney was given the information (i.e. did not search or solicit it) and then just did the right thing in asking the CIA to look into it. Any failures from that point forward will be put in the CIA's lap.

Let me just end by saying that all these stories about backroom dealing and manuevers to position Iraq as a threat just make me sick. I was taken by it, I was defending the US to my friends from all over the world as we marched into Iraq , and I feel sick that I was so stupid as to trust my government on the most important decision there is to make (i.e. to invade another nation). Regardless of if it was justified on other grounds, I am sick that the justification used was wrong, and perhaps willfully so. I wish I could just find out the truth and lock-up the perpetrators.

The first day of Ramadan is a national holiday in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, due to a bizarre insistence that the holy month cannot start until the moon can be actually seen, no one knows for sure when that day will be until the night before. (After all, there might be clouds obscuring the crescent.)

So, the Afghan government typically announces on the radio the afternoon before whether or not the following day is a holiday. This year, they got it wrong. After announcing all afternoon that Ramadan was set to start the next day (Sunday), the government reversed itself late at night, after no one was able to spot the moon. My namzad (that would be fiancee) was awakened by her boss at 7:30am, wondering why she hadn't come in to work. When I got in to the office, I found that half the staff had ended up taking a holiday.

Now far be it for me to tell Muslims how to run their religion, but this is just not a very bright way of operating a modern society. I mean, astronomy has made a couple of minor advances since the 7th century, when The Prophet roamed the deserts of Arabia. You think maybe they could just go ahead and fix the start of Ramadan for the next couple of centuries to, you know, plan ahead? Or if actually seeing the moon is so important, why not make it a two-day holiday, just to be safe and make sure that everyone's on the same page?

A friend from India tells me that this technique is especially problematic when Ramadan falls during the monsoon season--often the month will end up starting 3 or 4 days later than in the rest of the world, simply because the moon is obscured by clouds.

Sucks to be a Muslim in the Pacific Northwest, I guess.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003


With each day I find it harder to believe that anyone with half a brain is swallowing the Bush and team lies whole. I want to spend some time here to pick apart his statements on this issue and see how to categorize them, so bear with me. My source document for this is the New York Times article on Bush’s response to the bombings.

OK, let’s start with the first quote, “The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react." In the name of fairness I can see how this would be the case. If the Iraqi people were suffering and calling for the removal of American troops in daily protest there would be little reason for attacks. However the problem with this thinking is that the relationship is not success = attacks = continued success. Rather it is success = attacks = uncertainty, chaos and more challenging environment for continued success. Additionally, the relationship of success = attacks was not anticipated. It is not like these attacks are an inevitable side effect of success, but rather they are an indication that being successful in Iraq is going to continue to be much, much more difficult than any pre-war statement ever indicated.

This difficulty is the reason that the entire Iraq project could collapse from its own weight. If we had budgeted $100 BN or more in advance of the invasion there would be no political debate, but Bush did not have the courage to do so. Each attack means the scope of the task grows, which means the task ahead of us grows. At this point we must complete this task, but a year ago it was not a requirement for the US government. We are in a war of choice, one with a growing price tag each day, one where the cost – benefit looks less favourable each day (the decreasing benefit coming from the apparent lack of a WMD threat from Iraq, but that is a story for a different day).

The next quote is only partially Bush’s words, but with the way he speaks you see this kind of thing a lot, “the administration was determined ‘not to be intimidated by these killers.’” OK, fine no one is saying that we will be. But as Pedro points out even if we are not intimidated, the Red Cross and other NGO’s might be. These are people who want to work to make the world a better place. If they are locked in compounds in Iraq they are going to realize that they can do better things for people in other places. Their commitment to Iraq is just not going to be as strong because they don’t have the personal responsibility to make it work. So, while we might not be intimidated, it is our allies in the effort to rebuild Iraq that we should be concerned about. If they are intimidated then our task grows harder; and see above for the implications of that.

Next quote is, “The more free the Iraqis become, the more electricity is available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become, because they can't stand the thought of a free society." OK, fine, but then what? If the killers can’t stand the thought of free society then how are we going to make it work for the nation? It will require a strong police force at the least, which will take years to build and will be a real challenge to make sure is under civilian control. Again, to imagine that these are inevitabilities is wrong. They are additional challenges that while speaking to some level of intermediate success point towards a road ahead that is not going to be easy.

There are no more quotes from Bush, but another line that appears in several stories with administration sources is that the attacks are being done by foreigners. The implication being, I assume that Iraqis are still good people. That is fine, but I am not sure how relevant it is to the implications. What this says is that the supply of people to fight the US is not limited and it will be harder to control them. The source of the attacks doesn’t make future attacks any less likely, in fact it means that they will probably continue regardless of how much progress is made on rebuilding in Iraq.

This entire line points towards the foolishness of some of the pre-war thinking from the administration. The line was that a progressive government in Iraq would serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East and the dominos would fall. Well, first, we are seeing that getting a progressive government in place in Iraq is far more challenging than what was projected. Second, the thinking ignores the fact that there are real enemies of that goal all over the Middle East and they are not going to just sit back and wait for change, but are going to fight against it everywhere and at every turn. So good luck trying to muster enough force, political will, and dollars to make those dominos fall.

Here's a story that no one's talking about: the richest man in Russia was jailed for what appear to be political reasons.

I don't know a whole lot about Russia, but I can't see how this is a good move by Putin. Khodorkovsky's crime, apparently, was to fund two opposition parties that are poised to lose resoundingly at the polls this winter (according to articles I've read in The Economist recently). So how is it worth it for Putin to (further) expose his repressive tendencies and deliver a serious shock to the Russian economy?

I will also be interested to see if President Bush ever publicly re-evaluates his opinion of Putin. I mean, it must be pretty convincing to look deep into someone's soul, but sometimes real-world evidence should be taken into account.

The recent spate of attacks, says President Bush, is a vindication of his policy in Iraq.

What?? If this is to be considered positive news, what form would bad news take? The recent attacks targeting NGOs and the UN in Iraq and Afghanistan are appalling and inexpressably tragic (and not even for the organizations so much as the devastated and impoverished communities they can no longer help due to security concerns). I had dinner with a bunch of UN employees last night, and with the exception of East Timor, none could remember coordinated attacks on civilian aid workers ever happening before. NGOs simply can't work under these conditions--so either the attacks need to stop tomorrow or the US Army is going to have to shoulder the lion's share of the reconstruction. Is this what Bush wants?

All rhetoric aside, if these bombings and attacks are considered positive signs, I simply don't understand what goals the Bush Administration has set to determine its progress in Iraq. Do they have a vision for where they want the country to be 6 months from now? Have they articulated it?

And another thing that bothered me about the WaPo article linked above was a quotation from some guy at the American Enterprise Institute, who asserted that Bush's point had some merit because the attacks on the NGOs show that the attackers recognize that they don't have the strength to target the US military (which is a good sign, right?).

Um, no. Let's think about this for a second. What is going to be more effective: an attack on a 150,000-strong occupying force that has no plans to go anywhere, or one on the Red Cross that might cause most of the NGOs to leave the country? The attack on the Red Cross (and the earlier one on the UN) was strategic, not a sign of weakness and despair. They know exactly what they're doing, which is what makes the situation so dangerous and uncertain.

Bush needs to get the international community in ASAP--there is simply no longer any alternative. They need to then increase the military commitment, hunt down Saddam Hussein, and do their damnedest to get NGOs into the country and thereby convince Iraqis that it's not merely an occupation. The current plan is simply not working, and no amount of absurd claims to the contrary is going to change the facts on the ground.

Living here in Kabul, I can't say that I'm all too optimistic that the reconstruction of Afghanistan is ultimately going to work. But--the Administration's claims notwithstanding--I see a lot more to be optimistic about here than I do in Iraq.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Real Shots...

After dispatching the Yankee news, let's get on to some real stuff. In rapid fire fashion here, since my thinking is about as shallow as a puddle in the desert.

Wolfowitz - I used to trust this guy. I thought he was straight about what he wanted to do and why. Now I just hope that rockets being fired at his hotel might lead him to acknowledge some flaws in his and the administration's thinking on Iraq.

Barbara Bush - Will her soft, grandmother image be destroyed by her petty statements on the status of the Democratic field? My guess is harmed, but not destroyed.

Baghdad - A whole new round of bombings going on right now. Can we please acknowledge that this is a problem? We can't get a nation working right if even the Red Cross is a target. I don't care how many schools, roads, and bridges are open there is something wrong in this place now.

Plame - Where is this story? It is still a huge problem that her identity was leaked. Last week's news was that Ashcroft is getting daily briefings on the investigation. One has to wonder where the information goes from there.

9/11 commission - Story in the NYT yesterday about how they might have to subpeona West Wing files on intelligence leading up to attack. Why is this stuff not being shared? How can we know how to prevent future attacks if a Congressional Commission can't even find out what was known and when in advance of the attacks.

Cheap shots...

I have been away from the blog for the last few days, but it is nice to see a good Yankee related taunt from Pedro (just another pitch at the head.) I feel like getting dirty and responding. One, the Yankees still beat the Red Sox. Sure winning the world series after that would have been good, but to be honest I cared a lot more about beating the Sox than winning the World Series (especially after that childish pitch to the head). I want to clarify that though, I do want the Sox to win the Series one year, just sometime that they don't have to beat the Yankees along the way. The two years that I was out of the country would have been good opportunities for that, but they missed that window.

Second, the run that the Yankee are on is still amazing. Winning six straight (7 out of 8) division titles, winning 4 out of 8 world series, winning 6 out of 8 American League titles. Personal Postseason records being shattered (yes, I know there are extra rounds these days, but don't hold your breath waiting for another team to go on a run like these Yanks have had). As I pointed out last week, with extra rounds in the playoffs the odds of winning a World Series get that much longer, and winning year after year is tough.

Third, there is no Yankee Nation. Only the Red Sox are so self-absorbed to pretend that there fans make up a nation. The Yankees and their fans don't even have their own city, let alone nation.

Fourth, Steinbrenner. He may have an irrational need to win every year in a sport that is just not designed for dynasties, but it is that need which makes the Yankees great. Everyone whines about the Yankees winning just because they have more money, but that is only a small part of the story. They have spent the money well (see NY Mets) and they have a team oriented towards winning above all else (see Derek Jeter vs. A-Rod). Did the Yanks beat the Sox because they had a higher payroll? No. The Sox won games with Burkett and Wakefield on the mound. With more money the Sox might have replaced those guys, but the result couldn' have been any better. The Sox lost with Pedro on the mound, with more money would anyone else have been on the mound for those games? No. The Yankees win with Mariano on the mound. Would more money by anyone else change that? No, there is only one Mariano Rivera and he is a Yankee because he came from the Yankee farm system, not because the Yankees bought him.

Fifth, more with the money. I am so sick and tired of people who think that spending money is all that matters. The Florida F'in Marlins won this year with a $50 MM payroll. There have been 6 different NL teams in the world series in the last 8 years. The longest post-season drought is only about 20 years. In the AL, the only teams that have not been in the playoffs since 1990 are the Tigers, Royals, and Tampa Bay. The only argument for money = power in baseball is the NY Yankees, and that is just because they are the best and have the most money. Throw the Yankees out of the debate and it would be very hard to argue that spending more money leads to winning.

Sixth, Suck it.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

My condolences to Yankee Nation, although it looks like the fallout may be even more fun than anything happening at Fenway this offseason.

In similarly dark but infinitely more serious news, someone took some potshots at Paul Wolfowitz this morning in both Tikrit and Baghdad. It seems likely that this was more than random violence.

Given that this comes after two weeks of an intensive PR campaign by the administration and its neo-conservative lackeys, I wonder how they're going to react to the news. Frankly, I think it's high time that Bush cut the shit and admit that things are not going quite as planned. I'm pleased that he has adjusted his strategy in recent days, but it's hard to deal with a problem when you won't even admit that it exists. I would have a lot more respect for him as a leader if he could simply acknowledge a mistake once in a while.

Speaking of trade embargoes, I hope that someone in the US government is taking a long, hard look at the effectiveness of economic sanctions. They certainly provide a menacing club the United States can use to coerce its friends and enemies, but when the guy on the receiving end heads a repressive government and doesn't much care about the welfare of his people (or, perhaps more accurately, places their welfare behind other geopolitical or personal concerns), it's not clear that the sanctions are worthwhile.

The obvious example of this is Iraq, which was a relatively prosperous state before Saddam decided to attack Iran. Even after defeat in the first Gulf War, Iraq had the resources (oil reserves, relatively educated populace) to pull itself out of poverty. But the sanctions regime ended any chance of that, as the country could not import much of what it needed to build its economy and few dared invest there.

I recently read The Carpet Wars (recommended) which includes a chapter describing the author's trip to Baghdad in 1998. After seven years of sanctions, commerce in the capital had all but dried up, and prices of non-essential goods (such as... carpets, of course) had bottomed out, since there were very few tourists and Iraqis had no money to spend. He describes going to a carpet auction, where beautiful and valuable antique rugs brought prices a fifth as high as they would in Afghanistan.

And now we know that Saddam and his ruling class were largely untouched by the sanctions, living in opulent palaces with fine wines and cigars and sleeping on piles of money. His rule never seems to have been threatened internally, so given his willingness to see his people suffer, it would seem that the economic sanctions had little of their desired effect. Would he have been any more dangerous if the UN had kept strict arms sanctions and weapons inspections (and the US had maintained the no-fly zones) but had lifted many of the economic sanctions? I don't know, but that's an answer we should seek to determine.

I think it's important that the US (and the Western world) try to inject some semblance of morality into their foreign policies, although this is certainly tricky to do. A good start would be figuring out the circumstances under which economic sanctions don't work as intended and looking for an alternative.

(By the way, I'm firmly in the camp favoring an end to the Cuba embargo--it's not clear that it is accomplishing much beyond propping up Castro and helping Havana continue to look the same as it did in the 1950s.)

Friday, October 24, 2003

More on Cuba...

The blogoverse also noticed the Cuba vote, and not surprisingly as a medium that is not influenced by Cuban exiles there is a lot being said in favor of lifiting the ban. The Oxblog has a long post about why this is a good foreign policy move. Drezner tries to agree, but is very cautious and considers North Korea a better comparison for Cuba than China. Now I am not an expert on Cuba, but I do have some first-hand knowledge, and I think that the comparison is very misguided. In response to Dan's view I wrote this comment:

I have visited Cuba and only read limited accounts of the few visitors who have been allowed into North Korea. Based on this information I believe the level of freedom in each place is many degrees apart. While Castro would love for all tourists to only visit "quarrantined" beach resorts, the truth is that many visitors spend a lot of time in Havana. There is a high level of mixing between tourists and natives all over the city, with the enforcement of controls on tourists being similar to under-age drinking control in college (i.e. don't ask, don't tell). Increasing the level of tourism will increase the mixing and make it still harder for the regime to exert any control over most Cubans.

I don't think that this will be a silver bullet for regime change, but it would also be a mistake to think that it will have no impact on Cuba. A good portion of the accomodation and meals available in Havana is from privately owned operations in people's houses. While I am sure this is monitored by the state, it seems to point towards the re-emergence of the Cuban middle class.

And while Cubans on the street are somewhat apprehensive of doing business (i.e. selling Cigars and Rum) with tourists in public, they have no problem talking with tourists in public parks (and will not hesitate to slip you into a local bar for a drink and a half price sale of some local goods). I don't think more tourists to talk to will change the regime, but it will certainly allow news of the world which differs from Castro's view (not that information is a huge problem for Cubans today).

It just seems that increased trade (especially tourism) will go a long way towards integration of Cuba into the western world, and that any lumping together of Cuba and a place like North Korea or Sadaam's Iraq in terms of control of the public is a bit strained.

A few standing out from the crowd...

Most of what shows up in the newspaper is just politicians saying what you expect them to say, parties taking sides you expect them to take, and people suffering where you know they are suffering. It makes the whole thing kind of boring, and puts one to wondering if any of it matters. But every once in a while a story breaks the mold, and is worth taking note of. There are two such stories in the New York Times today.

The first is about the pricks to his bubble that Bush suffered during his recent trip to Asia. Bush himself has acknowledged that he gets most of his information from aides. The story of his encounters in Asia highlights how even Bush was forced to notice that most of the world does not share his world view, and does not trust his motivations. It is interesting to speculate if Bush is capable of questioning some of his choices based on understanding how he is viewed on the world. I doubt that it will happen based on a few very limited interactions. But perhaps it will set the groundwork for some more sustained conversations with people who do not share Bush's world view and that will lead to a more open minded policy. Perhaps Bush will realize that the goodwill of the US is not assumed by the world, but needs to be proven on a daily basis. This is difficult when all we are doing is fighting terrorism, rather than taking actions that really benefit most of the world. All of this is probably a daydream, but it is nice to think about. I certainly prefer it to the pessimistic view which is that when such an obvious fact of life is a surprise to the most powerful man in the world can there be any hope for a better future.

The second interesting story is not something written by a reporter, but just the actions of congress. Yesterday the US Senate acknowledged that after 40 years of trying the travel ban to Cuba is probably not doing much to overthrow Castro's regime. This is one of those issues that was so tragic to follow because it was obvious that policy was not being driven by the best interests of the US, but by the best interests of a small, highly influential, and highly motivated minority (the Cuban exiles in Miami). Of course the threat is there of a veto by the President, but it is not clear if he will follow through on his threat. It is becoming increasingly obvious that this policy failed and to pander to a small group will certainly help Bush in Florida, but likely hurt him everywhere else. The Cuban Exiles might have overplayed their political hand by becoming solidly Republican, thus allowing Democrats to write them off and not even bother to pander to their misguided interests. It seems clear that for the last several months Bush has been trying to recreate the impression in America that Castro is evil and needs to be isolated. This would have provided significant political cover for a veto, but it is not clear that his speeches and statements have gained much traction with the American public. It is unclear which way this will go. A great reporter could tip this story by gaining evidence of a behind the scenes effort by Castro's government to maintain the travel ban. While the money would be welcome to Castro, he has to know that his rule is only held up by the illusion of America as an enemy.

Let's end this...

The attack was on direct democracy, which is certainly not what the founding fathers had in mind. However, I want to blame political parties for the state of affairs because issues of tax and service provision are the biggest predictor of voting patterns in the public, according to a Paul Krugman lecture I attended several months ago. Parties pander to what they believe will get them elected rather than choosing to put out a message that is more responsible for the long-term.

Let me backtrack for a moment here. I don't think my last post was an attack on American democracy; more on the sort of democracy that empowers every citizen to have a say in every governmental decision (which is definitely not the form of government our founding fathers desired). Perhaps we should call it "Californian" democracy?

Now, obviously, you could never operate a large country so that every citizen votes on every issue--it would simply be too inefficient and nothing would ever get done. But I think the danger of that sort of government extends further--a major reason that representative democracy is preferable is that while citizens are still empowered to have a voice in the direction of the country, specific questions are left to representatives whose job it is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the relevant issues.

I know that this is a facile point and I'm probably failing Government 101, but I stand by my view that citizens should not vote directly on taxation issues--in an ideal world, everyone will have perfect knowledge and vote accordingly, but this is not an ideal world. (In other words, I agree with most of your points, I just question how realistic it is to expect that the anti-tax rhetoric can be overcome by the forces of fiscal responsibility--remember that the business community in Alabama supported the failed initiative.)

Thursday, October 23, 2003

A bleak view...

As befits a Red Sox fan in this season of suffering Pedro chooses to take a bleak view of American democracy. I don't disagree on the surface of what he says, but I chose to skip the surface and go a bit deeper. I am understanding Pedro to be saying that the public voted against changing the basic economic regime out of a combination of ignorance and self-interest. I am electing to look past the currently framed debate and to see why the entire terms of this debate should be changed for all involved.

On the topic of self-interest, there are always going to be those who vote according to their personal pocketbook. However, the number of people who actually benefit from this policy is often much smaller than the number that support it thinking they will benefit. For me this says that the other side is not being properly articulated and communicated.

The other element here is that self-interest is often articulated in a very short term manner. If we consider the stereotypical wealthy businessman, we can view this person as simply wanting to pay less taxes because they pay for services which he does not consume: kids are in private school, expensive health insurance is paid for, house is owned, gate is built around house, landscapers are coming every week, large backyard for kids to play in, etc.. Basically this person is not consuming many public goods yet paying for many of them. But a longer-term view would understand that those tax dollars are paying for the reproduction of his labor force and consumer base. Sure the connection is not as direct, but if he wants his kids to have a bookeeper to hire at a reasonable wage, a hospital to visit, and people wealthy enough to buy goods being sold by his business he should have an interest in seeing that all of society has access to an education, access to decent health care, access to public goods. I don't think this argument is made enough to the public or to the wealthy business people who are the current backbone of the low-tax, low-service movement.

Finally there is the basic issue of ignorance. People don't understand that taxes go for public services that benefit them. Well, here I think that both sides are to blame in the failure of public understanding. There are party leaders who have chosen over a long period of time to use rhetoric that demonizes taxes and government with little praise of the services being proviced. I don't care what the rationale for this is, it is irresponsible and is a conscious decision. It is a strategic decision about the easiest way to gain political power. The costs of this strategy should be considered by those on both sides of the debate, and the debate should be reframed.

In the long-run everyone will lose from the "race to the bottom" strategy and to simply blame the people who are along for the ride or the system that has produced this strategy is to not look towards a future where debate will be able to move past an antiquated view of politics and economics. I think that by starting with an appeal to the most powerful interests in the nation and working the message to the people a tremendous change in the dynamics of politics can affect a change. To see how such an effort might begin, see my idea on a new communication strategy to CEOs that the Democratic party should engage in.

Rich, I agree in general with your points about Alabama, but I think your analysis is incorrect in one important way: I wouldn't say that the state is consciously pursuing a low-cost/low-tax/low-regulation economic strategy. Remember that their tax regime was written in the distant past and in a way that makes it quite difficult to enact reform (hence the ballot initiative that recently failed).

Also remember that the business community in Alabama mostly came out in favor of the initiative; it is widely accepted that it failed due to African-American distrust of the Republican Governor who proposed it and the general public antipathy towards raising taxes. I don't want to sound too condescending, but I rather doubt that most of the opponents voted against the initiative based on a nuanced understanding of the macroeconomic issues involved. Rather, I think many of them calculated that their taxes would rise and decided that they'd rather spend their own money than turn it over to state legislators.

I would go further and add that popular referenda on taxation almost always cause serious problems--just look at how California's absurd property tax law hamstrings the state's fiscal policy (not to mention the 2/3 supermajority required to pass a budget). It is clear from national polling that many people do not fully understand that their tax burden is directly related to the services that government can provide (I'm speaking of polls consistently showing that Americans both want their taxes reduced and services maintained or boosted). I don't want to sound like an opponent of democracy, but as long as this intellectual disconnect pervades American society, I think it's a bad idea for citizens to vote directly on tax issues.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Walking away from the future...

There was a New York Times editorial about the tax situation in Alabama that has set me to thinking about how misguided we are being about how to deal with the future of our nation and society. Since I can bet that the link to the story will either be ignored or not working, let me start with a brief review of what it says. Basically, Alabama has not been able to pass any bills or referendums to raise taxes in the face of falling revenues and rising demands for services. Thus many services that would be considered core to the functioning of a proper state government are potentially going to be cut in the next year. Included on this list is health care for the poor, tracking of communicable diseases, the criminal justice system, and education.

The Times seems to quite accurately come to the conclusion that this is not a productive course of action for a state government. Alabama is already not known as a wealthy state. I am sure that a quick review of various rankings along the lines of income, education, life expectancy, etc. would find Alabama near the bottom. But I want to put this in the terms of competition between places, rather than the standard, "how can we allow this to happen in our country" tirade.

We are in an era of globalization. Competition between places is not limited to nations, but happens across national borders to an extent that is far greater than any period since at least prior to World War I. For most of the 20th century it was perhaps a viable strategy for Alabama to be poor and have a low tax rate and limited government services. There are people and companies that would choose to locate in that environment as well as a captive population who will not be a position to take advantage of opportunities to move. This situation was mitigated by the fact that most of the push for base level social services was coming from the federal government, thus putting a floor on the level of misery that could be imposed by a "race to the bottom" regime.

In the context of national competition this worked fine (not great, but fine). When competition becomes international the floor is that much lower. If Alabama wants to pursue a strategy where they will compete on the basis of low-cost, low-regulation, low-tax they should be aware that they are no longer going to be competiting for jobs with Mississippi, but rather with Mexico, China, Indonesia, etc. The standard of living in those places is still much lower than in Alabama, the cost of business operation is lower, and yet the quality of labor supply is rapidly catching up to Alabama.

Basically Alabama is choosing to position itself as a huge loser in the emerging world of free trade. It is sad for the people of Alabama, but it could also have adverse effects on other regions of the US. First is that Alabama will demand more and more services from the federal government because of their complete failure to take care of themselves. Second is that the people of Alabama will be huge losers from free trade. Rather than look to the fact that the US as a whole might be winning they will base decisions on their own situation. There will be increasing pressure on political parties to impose sanctions, save US jobs, and take actions that will undermine our stance as a free trade nation.

It is tragic that the misguided policies of a small state in a poor nation could jeapardize the future of the entire union, but the chance is there. The NYT basically concludes that the situation of Alabama should serve as a lesson for the entire US of the potential consequences of a "starve the beast" attitude towards taxes and size of government. I can only endorse this view. But I think that an even more holistic view of the changing nature of our nation's economy should drive home the point even more. We need government investment in programs that enhance our international competitiveness. We will not be internationally competitive by racing to the bottom, but because of our wealth, our freedom, our spirit, and our resources are uniquely positioned to be a big winner in the global economy. It would be a shame if we choose to be the store-brand cola of the global economy rather than the Coca-Cola of the global economy.

You can only be the Coca-Cola of the global economy through significant, sustained investment in what makes you differentiated. For Coca-Cola that is huge spending on marketing and advertising to convince people to pay a premium for sugar-water. For the United States of America that is huge spending on education, bearing the costs of freedom, being open to free trade, being open to immigration, giving all our citizens the chance to succeed, and doing everything possible to ensure a fair functioning of our democratic system. There are so many actions today which are counter-productive to these goals, and it is just tragic to see that there are no leaders able to articulate to the people just how dangerous this is to our future.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Topic of the day...

I will follow Pedro's lead and try to start my day with a topic I was not really thinking about before I woke up, drug legalization. All of what Pedro says is true, but it leaves out a huge part of the story, namely what drugs do to users? There are lots of people who argue that one can use drugs occasionally and recreationally without doing significant harm to one's life. But there are plenty of people you can find on the streets, under bridges, and in the alleys of society who demostrate the true cost of drugs on a person.

My conflict comes with trying to find a way to eliminate all the bad that goes on in the drug war while not having more people with completely messed up lives. One possible answer is not legalization, but a change in the way the drug war is fought. Rather than trying to interdict and put away dealers (which seems to not be effective given what I have heard about the falling price of drugs) perhaps more emphasis could be placed on treatment of users.

What would the impact of this be on countries like Afganistan? Well, for one it stands to reason that the price of drugs would fall. It would lower demand and the decreasing spending on enforcement would increase supply...thus lower price. But it would not legitimize the trade, hence it would not change the role of drug lords in society. Perhaps if the trade was less lucrative it would not displace traditional agriculture. In fact if there was less enforcement we might not even see production of drugs in the most broken nations. Currently Afganistan's competitive advantage in the drug trade is its lack of enforcement, but if enforcement is not an issue it is hard to see opium from Afganistan being much cheaper than other places in the world around the 40th parallel.

But what am I really proposing here? To not enforce a law, except for those that buy and use drugs. If this is the case then what is the point of the law. Are there things that are strongly frowned upon by society which are still legal? One example here is certain types of speech, but even things like flag burning and cross burning are being regulated by society.

The issue with the regulation is that stepping back from the current policy could be seen as an endorsement of drug use. It is a difficult argument to sell to the American public to say that drugs are still very bad, but we are not going to spend money on enforcement any more. Just making that message clear would seem to require a gradual approach where first enforcement steps down before legalization.

Continuing further on this issue we are faced now with the lobbies that are interested in maintaining current policies. Once something is created it is hard to take apart, and I imagine that the force of drug agents and others getting the billions fighting the drug war would be a well-organized lobby. I think that this argues for a gradual withdrawl from the drug war, rather than cold turkey legalization program.

While you're chewing on the prospect of Jason Giambi and a couple of other Yankee hooligans getting hauled in to court, here's a topic that we might not agree on:

Drug legalization.

I've seen a number of articles in the popular press recently on the subject, but the one that sticks in my mind was a review in The Economist of a recent book written by David Boaz of the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank that has lots to say about drug legalization. I found the review (and the book, I suppose) striking in that they only considered how drug laws in Western countries affect the societies of those same countries. Um, guys, you might want to take note that US and European drug policies drastically affect some other parts of the world, too.

Let's consider the case of, oh, I don't know, how about Afghanistan? Opium production almost certainly has a greater effect on the country than anything besides ISAF -- the NATO-led security forces in Kabul (without ISAF, there would most likely be a civil war raging here, but let's set that aside for the moment). And to give credit where it's due, I should point out that the heroin trade is--by far--the largest single component of Aghanistan's GDP, and is therefore responsible for bringing a lot of capital and wealth into the country.

Unfortunately, there are a few downsides: since international trade of heroin is illegal and highly lucrative, it is dominated by a number of violent druglord types who typically do not seek to invest their earnings into productive enterprises. Worse, these "narco-mafia" have little interest in seeing a fully functioning civil society, since if one existed, it would waste little time in hunting them down. So you won't be surprised when I mention that recent intelligence reports suggest that these druglords have been teaming up with the Taliban to destabilize the southern part of the country. The list of problems goes on: opium production crowds out the production of other agriculture, leading to higher food prices for the already impoverished Afghan population, it creates gross income inequality, etc, etc.

It is no exaggeration to say that if America and Europe suddenly legalized the importation (and use) of heroin, Afghan society would be transformed nearly overnight. When you add this to the dubious success of the drug war in the West, I think there is a very strong moral (as well as personal liberty) argument for the legalization (and heavy regulation) of most narcotics.

If I were king for a day in the United States, I would take a very hard look at phasing in legalization and regulation of most drugs over the next couple of years. Unfortunately, I don't see this on the horizon (well, besides marijuana legalization), so Afghanistan is going to suffer as a result of America's drug policies for years to come.

Monday, October 20, 2003

A dialogue...

It is good to have a co-conspirator on board here. I would consider engaging in a conversation on this blog, but it probably would not be too interesting since Pedro and I agree on most things (with the exception of baseball). Perhaps this blog can serve as a symbol of the direction I hope that politics and discourse in the US can move. Namely that we can see common ground in our goals and missions over the difference of who we want to win in what is really just a game. Hopefully we will at least each be able to come up with some interesting things to write about (and Pedro's experience at a Donor Meeting is a great start).

Due to a busy weekend I missed my chance to blog on the epic baseball game last week. I was watching the game as a houseguest of a Red Sox fan, but due to his business travel I was alone for the first few innings. I was pretty convinced the Curse was over by the fourth inning. However the return of said Red Sox fan helped to raise my spirits as he said this is exactly how it would start, especially the missed chances for the Sox early on in the game. Pedro (the real one) was in good form for the better part of the game, and I was definitely going to be more bothered by Pedro playing a role in a Sox win, than it being just a Sox win. For me the most heartwarming aspect of that 8th innning was that it was Pedro blowing the game (with a lot of help from Grady Little). I was still not convinced the Yankees were going to win though. By the 10th the Sox had Wakefield on the mound, Lowe and Williamson in the pen and the Yanks had Mariano rapidly eating up his time with no trusted relief to come in next. The game was going to be the Sox to win after the 11th. But then Boone came up, ended the game, and any doubt I had in the existence of a curse.

I had to step outside to make my celebratory phone calls, but still had to lower my voice as dispondent Sox fans wandered home. It was definitely not a time that I would have wanted to be driving around the Boston area. The next day I bought the Globe and surveyed the post-mortem. I wonder if Vegas is taking bets on the date of Grady Little's firing as manager. Unfortunately I missed a lot of the sports radio the next day as my passenger was a Red Sox fan who wanted no reminder of the previous night's events. I did hear that one caller compared Grady Little to a child molester. I am not sure of how they are comparable, but I think it speaks to the Boston fans' sense of anger. Well, there is always next year.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Yesterday I had the pleasure--or misfortune, depending on your point of view--of attending a high-level meeting involving a bunch of government ministers and donors (ie, the Country Managers for USAID, ADB, World Bank, etc, etc). It's not clear why I was there, but I was, and drawing more than a few looks asking, "Why are you here?" Now I'm not sure if such a governmental meeting in Afghanistan is going to be much like one in the USA or France or wherever, but I took a great deal of satisfaction in noticing that several people slept through the meeting, as if it were a godawful lecture on The Phenomenology of Mind. I mean, it's not like anything important was going on.

There were several topics on the agenda, but the most interesting was a review of last month's donor meeting in Dubai. Finance Minister Ashraf Ashraf Ghani (actually just one Ashraf, but it sounds a lot better with two) and someone who I didn't recognize but might have been the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah (another great name!), did most of the talking.

They started by thanking each of the donors who had made new pledges at the conference, from America's $1.2 billion all the way down to Sweden's $2 million--you could sense that all the donors who had managed to stay awake were feeling pretty good about themselves. But then Ashraf pulled out the big guns. He said, basically, this is all very nice and we are certainly appreciative of donor support, but Afghanistan is nowhere near the edge of the woods. He presented a nifty little (multi-color!) handout comparing current pledges to Iraq and Afghanistan and said something along the lines of, America claimed the world could handle two massive reconstructions at the same time--now it must prove it.

Ashraf then detailed American, European and Iranian spending on heroin rehabilitation and interdiction (the total was somewhere in the tens of billions of dollars) and mentioned that a mere $20 million was spent last year to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan that is largely the cause of these countries' internal problems. He went on to describe the terrorism threat that everyone knows so well and asked whether it made more sense to spent tens of billions of dollars cleaning up after an attack or a fraction of that (in Afghanistan) to prevent it in the first place.

He ended with this comment: "We won't let Afghanistan fail, but it still might."

As Prof. Glenn would say, "Indeed."

Many thanks to Rich for bringing me on as a guest blogger. As he mentioned, I am currently living in the beautiful city of Kabul, Afghanistan, where my fiancee and I are doing what we can to help rebuild (well, build) the country. Since all massive reconstruction projects start at home, tonight I'm going to focus my attentions on the bathroom, where I hope to replace the awful Pakistani toilet paper holder that curses our lives.

Speaking of curses, I've adopted the pseudonym Pedro on this blog, in honor of the whiniest member of the glorious Boston Red Sox--who evidentally just took part in the best postseason series ever to not be shown in Kabul. I'll let Rich handle any baseball blogging, as I'm sure he's dying to start the gloat. (I'm not using my real name, by the way, because the international community is rather small here, and I don't want to accidentally cram my foot down my or my fiancee's mouth.)

So anyway, I'll try to post fairly regularly, although that will be subject to my schedule and the vagaries of internet access in Afghanistan. Not all of us are graduate students or unemployed (anymore).

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Urban related information...

I have been on the email list of a new magazine called "The Next American City" for a while now, but I have not been reading their material as much as I should. But I am going to be more diligent about doing so, mostly because it is really interesting. The article that I read today was about the economic turnaround of Chattanooga, TN.

The story of Chattanooga is essentially that they have been able to affect a turnaround of an urban area not through appealing to the stereotyped cretative class that Richard Florida talks about, but rather through becoming an appealing place to a more conservative group of people. This article dovetails with my emerging belief that the future economic strength is not going to depend on the success of becoming more like New York or San Francisco, but on developing a differentiated strength.

As with product marketing, place marketing is going to move into a more sophisticated mold in the coming years. I believe that we are going to see places not trying to copy each other, but developing unique value propositions to businesses, residents, and tourists. Florida's view seems to focus on a relative monolithic creative class that has a certain set of beliefs and values (including diversity). But I think that when you are talking about any group that makes up such a signficant portion of the population, there are going to be real differences within that group. It is from these differences that I think a real progressive vision of a regional economic future can spring.

Developing and implementing that vision is not an easy thing to try to do. In the case of Chattanooga it seems that they benefited from a relatively small group of local elites who were able to chart a direction for the place. They are fortunate in being able to accomplish that. Some other places might have to see a common vision come from other areas. I think this requires sophisticated thinking and process to build a local concensus around a unique idea. The traditional model of local economic development of trying to simply attract businesses is probably going to need to be supplemented to help make this work. Attracting business will still be important, but it is important to be able to do that with a differentiated value proposition that moves beyond tax credits and available land. It requires being able to articulate a future for the place (with real programs and initiatives in place that support that vision) which will be appealing to the specific business that one wants to attract.

This is a complex view of how regional economic development will evolve, but places that are able to effectively put together the various pieces required will be the success stories of the coming decades.

More interesting news...

Friedman talks about the Bush Team PR offensive regarding the state of affairs in Iraq, but I wonder if anyone is really taking it seriously. Does anyone really believe anything that these guys say about what is going on in Iraq besides Bush himself in his "no news cocoon"?

Further evidence that they are just spinning the state of affairs in Iraq comes from this survey of troops conducted by Stars and Stripes (link to Washington Post article, via Josh Marshall). The survey finds that morale is low, troops are not doing jobs they were trained for, and are unlikely to re-enlist after their current tour. But, there are the caveats that the survey was not scientific. While this does not invalidate all the findings, and makes it extremely unlikely that the opposite is true, there does seem to be potential for correlation between flaws in their method and findings. It seems that unhappy soldiers, ones doing "boring" jobs that they are trained for might be more likely to complete a survey that provides a chance to vent. A soldier fully engaged in day to day work and enjoying that work might be more likely to cast aside such a survey.

So I don't want to overstate what is being said by the article, but it is just one of many chinks in this ridiculous PR offensive to convince us that "all is well, remain calm." Instead of doing that, why can't they just spend a few months and concentrate on finding good ways to clean up the mess that we have made of Iraq.

A worthwhile read...

For whatever reason I have been more critical than supportive of the NYT Op-Ed columnists lately. But today Thomas Friedman comes through with a gem. He manages to critisize the administration while supporting their biggest stand in Iraq. I think it is spot-on, and as with all pieces that appear in the NYT I don't think it will make a lick of difference in the dangerous path the Bush Administration continues to march down at home and abroad.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Expanding the blog...

I have been trying to keep up this blog for almost five months now, and it is getting more challenging. But I definitely enjoy having an outlet for my thoughts. It is challenging to keep things relevant and interesting (and sometimes I lose the ball on that). So, to keep a higher volume of interesting posts coming I am adding another author. I will let him introduce himself, but I will say that he is living in Afganistan, and that alone should make things a bit more interesting and original around here.

Some interesting numbers…

A while ago I said that I was putting together some calculations on the odds of winning the World Series in certain situations. I started doing this right after the Yankees lost their first game against the Twins and everyone on New York sports radio was ripping the Yankees (I imagine the tune is a bit different this morning). Anyway, people were basically saying that this Yankee team is not the same as the past teams that won, and that they did not have the same heart. Now I was not disputing this rhetoric, but what I thought was missing was just how remarkable what the Yankees have accomplished was.

The thing here is that baseball is a game where essentially any team can win on any given night. The differences in talent between the teams (especially in the playoffs) are not so large that one can confidently say that a certain game will be won by a certain team. Sure the better team has a better chance of winning, but still over the course of a five or seven game series there is no real guarantee that the “better” team will win. Then you have to keep in mind that with the current playoff structure teams have to win three playoff series to be crowned the champion. This further lengthens the odds that any given team will win the World Series.

So I put together a calculator to try to figure out the odds of a team with a given chance of winning any given game over its average playoff opponent of winning the World Series, and then calculated the odds of a team winning some number of championships out of seven (selected as the period of time since the Yankees first title in this run).

The results are quite interesting. First I used the average Yankee winning percentage in the last seven years and the average winning percentage of their playoff opponents to calculate their odds of winning any given playoff game. There are several assumptions here, notably that teams don’t “step it up” in different amounts for the postseason, and that regular season success is representative of the strength of a team. Interestingly, here I found that the Yankees had an average winning percentage of .609 while their opponents averaged .585. The difference is slight, and in this scenario the odds of the Yankees winning any given game were only 51%. If we put this into the calculator of the playoffs we find that the Yankees would have an average chance of winning the Championship of 14%. Given this, the odds of winning 4 out of 7 championships (or more) are less than 1%!

Now, one can certainly make the case that regular season success is not predicative of postseason success (see Atlanta Braves). So I started to look at relative success levels that make 4 out of 7 become a likely outcome. If the Yankees win 60% of games against playoff teams (meaning that they play .600 ball against the best teams in the league), then the odds of winning the Championship each year increase to 34%, but the odds of winning 4 or more out of 7 are still only 19%. To make winning 4 or more out of 7 a likely outcome (50%) the Yankees would have to have a chance of winning each game of almost two-thirds (in which case they still would only have a 50% chance of winning any given Championship.

Now, what does this mean for Yankee fans…well, basically it means that the playoffs are going to be stressful. The structure of the playoffs means that even the best teams are going to be hard pressed to win every year. If that is the expectation there is bound to be disappointment. When I was growing up the Yankees were not that good. Sure they had the best record for all of the 1980’s, but there were very few playoff appearances. In the early 90’s they were just miserable. Then things started to turn around…they had the best record in ’94, but were denied glory by the strike. In ’95 they were in the playoffs for the first time since I was six and I was pleased with that. Then came ’96, and they won the championship, and I was thrilled. Then ’97 when they lost, which was disappointing. Then they won three straight and somewhere in there winning became the expectation. For the last two years I have been out of the country during the playoffs, and thus have not been able to watch the games. The Yankees lost, but I was not living and dying with each pitch.

Now I am back, and I am starting to understand why people say it is not fun to be a Yankee fan. The glee of victory barely outweighs the disappointment in defeat. But I am stuck being a Yankee fan. I grew up with this team, they were my team through the years of Steinbrenner sabotage, and they were my team when they were winning. Sure there are new fans out there, who were not attending games in the early ‘90’s, but I can’t be angry or resent those people, that team was pretty bad. There are times where I wish I could have the outlook of a Red Sox fan, an ability to expect failure and take heart in little victories. But the recent history of the Yankees has created a nearly unsustainable expectation of championships.

While painful for a fan, that is a huge credit to the key players who have been with the team throughout their run. Jeter is the captain of a team that has accomplished something truly remarkable (an ability to reliable and consistently win big games against other very good teams). Mariano Rivera turns in performances that win those big games. Starters like Pettitte, Wells, Clemens, and others have been giving great performances when it matters. Posada, Williams, O’Neill, Brosius, Soriano, Martinez, Knoblauch, Leyritz, and others have all found ways to come through in the clutch. In fact, the ability to bring in new players and have them perform in the postseason shines a bright spotlight on the job that Joe Torre does year after year.

Now I wish I could predict that the Yankees will win another championship and that I will be able to celebrate. But I know that the odds are still long. It is hard to make a case that the Yankees are really better than the Red Sox this year. Every game is so close it almost hurts to watch. But I will, no matter how painful it becomes.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The (real) football...

I recently got an email from a friend saying, " have a theory that beckham was weak enough as a defensive midfielder that man u's defense is that much better this year just for that reason. discuss." This was prompted by my observation that Tim Howard has given up the fewest goals in the EPL this year. But I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that Man U's defense improved by subtraction. Beckham is far from a great defender, but you also have to consider who has replaced him in the line-up. For the most part that has been Christiano Ronaldo. He is a remarkable player, who will attempt some amazing one on one moves, but he is hardly a defensive force. I will acknowledge though that Man U does have a better defense than they did at least at this time last year. The most notable reason for this is the rise of John O'Shea. Since he started playing regularly last year he has been a remarkable player. Playing mostly on the outside he has given United that sought after solid fourth defender. When they are short a man he has played quite well in the middle as well. Additionally Roy Keane has done a great job in defense when called upon. The other development is Quinton Fortune getting significant playing time in the back. I have not seen enough of him to really say what impact he is having, but it seems to be good. Overall, I have to say that yes, Man U's defense is better this year, but not because of the loss of David Beckham from the line-up.

While dealing with Beckham, let me just give some kudo's to the England National Team on their qualification for Euro 2004 with the draw in Istanbul on Saturday. Turkey is no pushover, making the semifinals of the last World Cup, and I think that England has shown they will be a real player on the world stage for the next few years. The game was a nil-nil draw, but with Rio out due to some dodgy FA dealings, and Owen gone with injuries (both top 5 players on the England side) they showed great nerve getting the result they needed to advance. Euro 2004 should be a great tournament this summer, and I hope that it gets some reasonable level of coverage in the US. With the exception of Brazil and possibly Argentina, all of the premier football powers are European, making this tournament incredibly interesting. Will France rebound from their dismal showing in the last World Cup, can Germany again capture some magic for a tournament run, will Italy continue to score goals and play as well as their talent indicates they could, will Spain ever get some glory, will Portugal live up to their once bright promise, will England be able to get a full squad down and put on a show, will the Dutch put aside their infighting and ever play as a team, who else will step up to be a factor? The questions are endless.

Clark's backing...

There is a very good digging into Clark's support on the Emerging Democratic Majority blog. Basic argument, which should surprise no one, is that Clark does well in exactly the groups that Democrat's need to win over to win the White House back. It goes deeper, saying that most of the criticism of Clark as not being a "real" Democrat are in reality reasons that he would make a great candidate in the general election.

I see some similarities here to the recent situation in California (and if I am the first one to see these I would be shocked). Arnold was a viable candidate for Governor only because he did not have to run to the right to win the nomination of his party. It was demostrated in the last election that California Republicans are very will to bite off their nose to spite their face in their nomination of Bill Simon over Riordan. Not given the same opportunity this year they end up winning the Governor's Mansion by having a very moderate candidate.

I hope that leading Dems are able to learn from this. To nominate a candidate who most of the nation perceives as very liberal will not help in the ultimate goal of returning some balence to our federal government and restoring our status in the world community. Hopefully more people will be able to make the pragmatic choice that Clark is the candidate with the best chance of taking down Bush, and thus should be selected as the party's nominee.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that Dean et. al. are in capable of beating Bush, just that it will be that much more difficult. I see no reason for over-confidence, which seems to be the main argument for Dean's chances. Specifically that Bush has done such a horrible job that there is no way that he would be re-elected. Well, in case you haven't noticed, there is still a good portion of the nation that thinks Bush is doing the best he can to keep America safe in a very dangerous world. As long as that view is widely held Dems should be careful about putting up any candidate who would be even slightly easy for the GOP to paint as weak.

Garden Variety...

In a world where lies help convince Americans that wars and invasions are justified and administration officials feel free to release classified information that undermines national security for political gain I suppose this story is really unremarkable. Maybe that is just a statement on the sad state of affairs in our government today. I am referring to the story about the form letter going out under the names of various solidiers in Iraq asserting that all is well.

For the best coverage of this story and all the background on it, check out the Talking Points Memo. This is Josh Marshall at his finest, spending the time to get behind the story to understand what is going on, and how this is just a more blatent example of something that is actually quite common in politics.

This is just another exclamation point behind the fact that politics in our country is not working as any reasonable person would hope. We are so accustomed to lies masquerading as spin that we just treat these kinds of deceptions as an everyday occurance. Both sides of debate on many issues have created an atmosphere where there is an impression that we are in a state of war that justifies all tactics in the name of victory. While no one is above contempt on this, I definitely cast more blame towards Bush and Co. for using international crisis and a feeling of vulnerability in America to not so much advance an agenda, but lie to the public.

For me the honest reasons for invading Iraq are valid, one can certainly disagree on the cost/benefit but removing a brutal dictator and attempting to reshape the Middle East are both debatable rationales for action. However, in the rush to eliminate debate the justification was a threat to America argument that looks increasingly flimsy as each month goes by. And it is not even that the argument was wrong, but that it was an argument in which real debate was impossible given the ability of those in power to just say, "trust us, we have the evidence but it is classified".

The everyday lies and denials also make me sick, the Healthy Forest, Clear Skies, horrible tax plans all just make me sick.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Red Sox - Yankees...

I need to put together a good post on what is like being a Yankee fan in Boston at this time. It is certainly strange, barely civil, and definitely amusing. There is a lot to say on this, but rather than making a fool of myself by saying it when the series is only two games old I think that I will wait until it is able to mature a bit.

Clark and the Internet...

This story is a bit stale, but I wanted to put up a few thoughts in recognition of making the Clarksphere blogroll. Earlier this week the campaign manager for Wesley Clark stepped aside. The story was widely reported as being a function of a split in the campaign between the internet-saavy grassroots advocates that led the Draft Clark movement and the newly hired professional pols who are taking over. There was some issue about using the internet and running an insurgent campaign.

My view on this is that it is a load of crap. Supporters of the General are not the Internet grass-roots types. Those people are all about Dean and will stay with Dean. If my assessment of Clark's supporter is any where near the truth I think that he is attractive to people who place a high premium on getting rid of Bush. This is a pragmatic stance, and seeing the campaign professional managed is another pragmatic stance. The idea that you can win a Presidential campaign by "owning" the Internet is untested to say the least. I am not saying that it is bad, but I would rather see that kind of campaign notch a few victories with lower stakes before being the centerpiece of a Presidential campaign that I feel holds a lot of promise.

As with most things I think personal politics had more to do with this decision. I think that Fowler felt a need to own a position in the campaign. He staked his territory in something that the highly paid professionals could not challenge him on. For them to take control of the campaign they had to de-emphasize his territory. I might be completely wrong on this, but that was just my reading of the situation with no original reporting on my part.

Bad blogging...

I have not been doing a good job on the blogging, and as a result there are a lot of things that I have been missing lately that I should have had some posts on. So let me start out what might be a long string of posts with a Cricket story.

A few months ago I was big on the Australia-Bangladesh test series as the mismatch of the century. Well, to the surprise of many Bangladesh did OK. It was not like they won any matches or even came close, but they were able to get batters out, hit the ball and do the things that Cricket teams are supposed to do. The other minnow of the Cricket world is Zimbabwe. They have not always been bad like Bangladesh, but since their nation has been falling apart apparently Cricket has not been a priority and the team has fared poorly. The first test between Zimbabwe and Australia started on Thursday and by the end of play on Friday a major record had fallen. Matthew Hayden broke the record for the highest scoring innings ever with 380 before finally making out. The record was held by the West Indian batsman Brian Lara, and he will probably work hard in the coming months to reclaim the record. To get a sense of how significant this is, it is the highest score in 1661 test matches of all time. There have been only about 20 or so innings of 300.

I am new to the game of Cricket, but if you want some real perspectives on this check out the ubersportingpundit, or just read the BBC story.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

My Clarksphere debut...

My pleas have been answered, and the Clarksphere has noticed me. Thanks go out, and if you are here to see my thoughts on the latest blog world discourse on Iraq you can page down, or just click here. If you want to learn a bit more about why I am supporting Clark, you can check out this post where I lay out my thoughts. Then there is this post where I debunk some of the attacks since Clark entered the race.

I want to leave this post at the top of my page for the next day, so I am going to just put some thoughts in under it, rather than a series of posts. First topic today is the Recall. I have been making my best efforts to ignore this story because I am just embarressed by all sides here. Now that it is over I just have a few things to say as a coda. It was not a landslide, there were actually more votes cast to keep Davis in office than for Arnold. If it was head to head, Arnold probably would have won, but let's not call it a landslide. Then I wonder what the ad environment was like in California because I am surprised by Bustamante's inability to get votes from people who voted against the recall. I also want to point out that part of the reason Arnold won is that he was willing to differ from national Republicans on several key issues. To view this election has validation of the agenda being pursued in Washington is absolutely the wrong reading of the situation.

Next topic is the shifting tone of debate in this country. It is my feeling that every view is becoming more polarized. People who believe that we are on the right course, see our nation under threat from outsiders that justify radical actions just to maintain our lifestyle. People who differ with the course of our nation see so many more threats from our own policies and believe that our policy directions is only exacerbating the situation. We are dealing with what amounts to fundamentally different realities and views that make communication and comprimise very difficult. As with most things I think the truth lies somewhere in between, and there needs to be a way to articulate that comprimise. Hopefully we will find that voice sometime in the next 12 months.