Yankee Blog

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

In a turn of events that should surprise no one, the constitutional Loya Jirga is on the verge of collapsing. I suspect that something will pass, if only because the US would probably bar all the roads leaving the city if the delegates tried to take off without a constitution (I'm joking... sort of).

But it sure sounds like one big mess, and I seriously doubt that the final product is going to make anyone happy.

It's a particularly ominous sign that the meeting is breaking down along ethnic lines. If Afghanistan is ever going to get its act together, it will be because the country unites around a single person or idea. It's becoming clear that Karzai is not that person, and democracy is not that idea.

Episodes like this, where a rebuilding country absolutely refuses to get its shit together no matter how obvious the benefit of doing so, really make me question whether it's worth it to work in international development. Check back in 6 months, but I'm starting to think that the only successful aid projects are heavily localized in nature, like Microlending programs or Doctors Without Borders.

UPDATE: Ok, I spoke a little too rashly there. Clearly there are a lot of successful large-scale projects, such as ISAF (the NATO-led security force in Kabul) and UN Mine Action (de-mining). But I have seen a lot of pointless projects and wasted money in my months in Afghanistan, and I'm starting to think that the best way to have a real impact on the country is to do everything you can to avoid working with the government or people in power (ie, warlords). And you can only do that if you're running a tiny project.

Monday, December 29, 2003

There are a number of ways of looking at the Afghan government's decision to send $150,000 in aid to Iran: compassionate and foolhardy come to mind.

But setting aside the question of how wise it is for one of the poorest countries in the world to be giving away money, I think it's an incredibly shrewd decision by President Karzai (and I'd be very interested to know whose idea it was). There isn't really a subtext to the move, since the message is so bloomin' obvious: foreign aid is a priority, and not just that which offers strategic advantage.

And the best part of it all is that 1/3 of the aid Karzai pledged is to come from the Herati warlord Ismail Khan (and you can bet that this wasn't cleared with him in advance). I love it!

Ok, so I haven't been posting as much as I thought I would while in the States. Or at all. It's been a whirlwind trip, trying to catch up with friends, family and good food, all while slapping together a few grad school applications. I'm almost looking forward to returning to the relative quiet of Kabul. Almost.

The latest news from that place I call home is that a suicide bomber has finally struck the capital. Unfortunately for him, he was in police custody at the time, so his attack wasn't quite as effective as he'd probably hoped (although he did kill five Interior Ministry "intelligence officers").

This is clearly troubling news, especially when added to the growing number of attacks in the city over the last month. I still think that the city is relatively safe (and will probably grow safer when the Loya Jirga disbands in a couple of days), but I've been wrong before.

There are two things in the article, however, that caught my attention. One is that the Interior guys had been following the suspect for much of the day before pulling him over. One thing I noticed while living in Kabul is that there are tons of security warnings and a nearly equal number of arrests of suspected terrorists. Now, either they are arresting all the terrorists and foiling the plots before they happen, or there are few plots and the arrests are in error. I have no idea. But the fact that they were tailing this guy all day makes me think that the truth may be somewhat closer to the former than I would have guessed.

If so, I must ask: where do they get such good intelligence? This whole digression probably seems a bit strange to those of you who haven't been in Kabul, so let me spell it out for you: everyone in the city drives a Toyota Corrolla and half of them are yellow. In addition, 99% of Afghan men dress exactly the same (actually, headgear differs, and this is how you can tell where a person is from, but the point stands). The idea that the Interior Ministry can correctly pick out one guy and one Corrolla from the millions of each in Kabul is astonishing. There's a story here, and I'd like to know what it is.

The other interesting thing is that the Times is reporting that the Constitution has been amended to ban Afghans with either dual citizenship or wives who are foreign or non-Muslim from serving as Ministers or other high-ranking Government officials. The former is a good idea, of course, but the latter is downright stupid.

But the interesting thing about that rule is that I can't help but think that it's targeted at a few current ministers... well, ok, one in particular: Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. His wife is not Afghan (he also might be a dual-citizen, I'm not sure).

He is a divisive and polarizing figure, yes, and he's probably the most powerful man in the country who doesn't have his own private militia, so it wouldn't be surprising that he'd have enemies who'd try to remove him. But it would be an absolute disaster if he were forced from his post, as he is quite simply the most effective Minister and the driving force behind many of the Government's accomplishments.

Let's hope they come to their senses.

(Oh, and by the way, many thanks to the international press for doing all they can to ignore the story of the constitutional Loya Jirga. It's not like the rest of the world has any stake in the success of Afghanistan's reconstruction, or anything...)

Saturday, December 27, 2003

A slow week...

Since Pedro seems to have abandoned blogging during his visit to the US (apparently he has better things to do, like spending time with friends and family and catching up on Dentist visits) I figure I should do what I can to carry this blog for the next week. Unfortunately I have friends and family too, so this might be my last post until the New Year.

And I am going to use my brief time for blogging to write about the English Premier League matches I was able to catch this weekend (and maybe some other football news if I have the time). The best match I was able to see this weekend was the Man U. - Everton boxing day match. During the holidays the English schedule makers go a bit crazy and teams tend to get a little tired. It can be a pivotal time of the season (or not as Manchester lost last year on Boxing Day to fall almost 10 points off the pace, but managed to not lose again and take the title). Anyway, this year Man U came out on top, beating Everton 3-2 at Old Trafford. The victory was more impressive than the score line indicates though. Everton's first goal was an own goal right off the head of Gary Neville. It was against the run of play. Everton didn't score again until late in the second half to make the last five minutes somewhat exciting.

The other impressive thing was that United won the game with Ruud, Keane, Giggs, and Scholes all starting the game on the bench. Scholes came in mid-way through the second half, but otherwise the second-stringers won this game. They have some very impressive depth. The player who impressed me the most was David Bellion. This young player hasn't been spending much time on the field this year, but he seemed to have quality througout his game and will probably be a force in the future. I was distinctly unimpressed with Kleberson, and Ronaldo continues to have flashes of brilliance that don't quite have a huge impact on the game. I think that will change for Ronaldo.

The other match of note was Charleton's 4-2 thrashing of Chelsea. Chelsea has been fading off the pace recently and while I think they have as much talent as any other team in the league I think stumbles like this one will cost them a chance to win the title this year. Next year is another story of course, but I think they and their fans will have to wait. Chelsea was without Veron and Crespo, but they still should have been able to do beat a team like Charleton without a few players.

With the win Charleton enters play tomorrow in that sought after fourth place on the table. With Liverpool and Newcastle nipping at their heels I don't think they will be able to hold it for the season, but it still looks to be a great season for fans at The Valley. Whenever I watch Charleton I wish that I had made the time to catch a few matches there. Unfortunately in the Premier League tickets are hard to come by. I don' t think there was a time when I could just make a decision at noon on Saturday and be at a match a few hours later. Thus I ended up in the warm embrace of QPR, the finest Division 2 football team in all the land.

QPR has been struggling a bit of late, working hard for a draw on Boxing Day after dropping their previous match. Both matches were away and QPR has been much more dominant at home. How dominant you ask? Try 26 goals for with only 3 goals against. It has been a good season to be a fan at Loftus Road (and Fulham has been representing as well). But the big QPR story is their financial situation. I am not quite sure what the story is exactly. First I read that they are seeking an investor, and then I read that they are not going to be selling any players. It puzzles me how a team with a 17,000 seat stadium in West London can't manage to support a Division 1 payroll (which is really what they have). It is my belief that with some smart management QPR could do some very interesting things to get on the radar screen of US fans, but that would take some marketing genius that seems to be in short supply in English football (with the exception of Man U)

One last sports story that I would like to note is the Boxing Day cricket match going on in Melbourne. After a first day that left India firmly in control the Aussies roared back to take charge of the match in the second day. They still have their work cut out for them to earn a victory but it should be interesting. The Aussies need to win the Test if they want to win the series. In the case of a draw then the Aussies would need a win in Sydney just to draw the series. India has been very impressive so far, and the Australian bowlers have been hurt by the absence of most of their first-string. But there are no excuses when you are the best team in the world, and it would be great to see two wins by the Aussies to finish off Steve Waugh's career.

Until the New Year: Health and Happiness to all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Just a boring comment...

An interesting discussion was started on the City Comforts blog asking the question if any ardently pro-libertarian bloggers have first hand experience with capitalism. I join the discussion with this comment, which meanders off in a different direction (that does tend to happen in the morning...and evening...with me.)

I am wondering how the definition of entrepreneur would enter this conversation? It seems that when David asks if ardently pro-Capitalist bloggers have made or lost money he is really asking if anyone has been an entrepreneur. The same is true for people who claim first-hand experience as capitalists. And by entrepreneur I mean someone who is making decisions about new processes or new allocations of resources.

Is there a definition of capitalist that is different from that of an entrepreneur? I would speculate that there is. A capitalist can simply possess a lot of assets and take a relative agnostic view to how those assets are allocated across a large portfolio.

Can someone be an entrepreneur (which is what I think people are really idealizing) without caring much for capitalism? I think so, and the emerging field of venture philanthropy and all of the organizations they are supporting seems to be an example.

You might wonder if I even have a point with this, but I think I do. I once was told that there really is no such thing as "capitalism" and "socialism". These are pure forms of an economic system that is really described on a continuum. Markets would fail without some level of regulation (my opinion...disagree if you would like) and production of resources would fail if there was no room for personal decision making.

So when a self-described "capitalist" makes an argument for less regulation simply because the state cannot allocate all resources I view it as a pretty weak argument. It is as weak to me as saying we should abolish private property because markets cannot function without some regulation.

Maybe today it has become easier to make the first argument because the failure of extreme socialism is more recent than the failures of extreme capitalism. In the end I think if someone wants to tell me why we should have less (or more) regulation of the economy their reasoning should not be "because capitalism is better than socialism" but "because removing said piece of regulation will enable x,y, and z to occur."

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Yet again with the inequality...

One of the great things about blogging is that after a while the same things tend to come up again and again. My favorite recurring thread in the world of blogs is the debate on inequality. Because this is something that I have spent some time thinking about I am always eager to jump in the fray. I am ever hopeful that someday my genius on the topic will be recognized. In the meantime, I will continue to share my thoughts with you, the lonely reader.

Anyway, the current inequality debate was brought to my attention by this Drezner post. Apparently the debate started with this article by Krugman in the Nation, was picked up by Mickey Kaus at the Slate, and is no doubt running on countless blogs at this time that I will not be reading, just as they are not reading what I am writing. Anyway, as usual there are several aspects to this debate, some of which I will pick up from the Drezner comments section, that I want to comment on. So, without further ado, here goes.

The first thing I want to pick up is this comment by Krugman regarding intergenerational economic mobility:

Sons often did much better than their fathers. A classic 1978 survey found that among adult men whose fathers were in the bottom 25 percent of the population as ranked by social and economic status, 23 percent had made it into the top 25 percent. In other words, during the first thirty years or so after World War II, the American dream of upward mobility was a real experience for many people.

Now I am thinking that this might have had a lot to do with immigration. The generation that this 1973 study is looking at is the generation that was the children of the huge immigration wave in the early 20th century. If I consider my own family history, my grandparents were not born in this country, but the did move here when they were young. I am quite sure they were not wealthy, I know they didn't starve to death, and I also know that they all went to work before finishing high school. However by the time that they got around to having kids (which was late, at least in part because during the Depression and WWII having a kid didn't seem like a great idea to many Americans) they were well-off enough to send their kids to college. Both of my parents went to public high schools and public colleges, and from that they had the tools to move up the income ladder.

Many immigrants enter the economic hierarchy closer to the bottom than the top and move up. I am wondering how much this mobility was driving the overall mobility that is characteristic of the middle part of the 20th century. It would be interesting to know how much mobility there was among people whose grandparents were born in America. I think this kind of analysis would be close to impossible based on the data collected by the census, but I think it is an interesting question. The implication of this hypothesis is that we might be in a period of relatively low economic mobility today (due in part to the historic low immigration rates during the 60's and 70's) but as the children of today's more numerous immigrants start to grow up and get educated in America I wonder if we will see another rise in economic mobility.

Of course there are a variety of other factors that will come into play, such as the quality of the public education system, the affordability of higher education, the importance placed on education by immigrants, and the opportunities available in the labor market, but I think there might be something to the idea that economic mobility is related to and impacted by immigration levels.

The next point I want to pick up is the critique that people make of arguments against rising inequality by equating them with an opposition to capitalism. I think this is false, it is possible to act against rising inequality and still beleive that capitalism is the best way possible of allocating resources. This statement comes from my belief that there is no such thing as unrestrained capitalism, and if you saw it you would not like it. I believe that the best economic system allows the free market to allocate resources and then allows the state to redistribute some portion of those resources. It is about creating a balence. You don't want a situation where the state is redistributing such a large portion of resources that it affects people's decision making. But you also don't want a situation where the market allocation of resources gets so extreme that it affects the reproduction of society.

This is a tricky balance, but I think there is a wide leeway to create a variety of types of societies that work. Sweden's system works for the, the US circa 1990 worked for us. The concern that Krugman is raising is that in the US we are moving towards a situation where the market allocation will be unrestrained to the point that society suffers. I don't think that Krugman was advocating a huge raise in the highest marginal tax rate or in the estate tax before these were cut by Bush. He is concerned (and I share the concern) that we are moving too far away from a model that was working into what is mostly uncharted territory. I think this could cause serious harm for society in the long-run and that bothers me. I think that it risks creating a situation where inequality is so high that it sows the seeds for a populist revolution that will make some very unwise choices in the other direction.

I actually don't want to see that revolution happen. I know that some people do, and these people vote for Ralph Nader, but my agenda is more to make sure that we create a society in America that is fair enough that people aren't angry, that their dignity is not destroyed, and that as a society and economy are able to utilize the talents and capabilities of each individual to the fullest. I don't think that Bush and crew are opposed to my vision, but I think that they are mistaken in their view of the best way to achieve that.

The third point I wanted to make on the inquality front in this post relates to the link between income inequality and economic change. I have said before that I think we are in the midst of a period of real, significant economic change. More than a century ago a good portion of the American labor force moved from growing food to producing goods. We didn't end up with less food, but more goods, thanks to higher productivity, and people were able to afford food and the new goods because there were jobs making the goods available that paid enough to afford both. Now we are in a period where less people are need to produce more goods. The trick is how are we going to distribute the money to allow people to buy all the goods that we are able to produce.

I have no doubt that those lucky enough to have a place in this new economic structure are going to do great, but the question is what is left. There will be retail jobs, and I think it is in the interests of everyone that these jobs pay well enough to allow people to participate in society, provide opportunities to their families, and buy the goods that are for sale in the stores. But what is left. I think that we need to find new things that will make all of our lives better. As a company is able to produce more with less there should be more surplus that can be redistributed. I don't think this needs to be hand-outs, but what about grants for the arts? It would allow people to create new things, which should, at least in theory enhance everyone's lives. What about more money for parks (and jobs to make them look good, and be safe)? What about better transit systems (which is out-sourcing people's transit to employ other people)?

My point here is that we need to find new ways to distribute resources to avoid inequality getting out of control. People who had manufacturing jobs are going to be looking for new ones, because I don't think they are coming back (at least not at a rate to keep up with labor force growth). So what kind of jobs are going to pick up the slack, and what policies are we putting in place to make sure that those new jobs are able to prevent inequality from getting out of control.

BTW: Some past inequality writings can be found here, here, here.
That is just one month, they are all over the place in this blog.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Wal-Mart and Unions...

The Cal-Pundit posting yesterday about a very smart and productive effort by a union to turn some of the large Casinos in Vegas into Union-shops. It is an interesting post, and the first part of the comments are interesting. I posted about the inability to label unions as absolutely good or absolutely bad, but my main point was supposed to be about Wal-Mart and unions. However that got cut short over there, so here is the rest of my post...

But why would a union be a good thing for Wal-Mart? It seems that for Wal-Mart labor costs are a small portion of their costs that they could provide a wage increase (or just health insurance for workers) without a huge hit to their total cost structure. (FYI: SG&A is 18.2% of sales, assuming 75% is labor in stores (I don't know retail much to make an educated guess) then a 20% increase in labor costs would be a 2.75% increase in costs, which could be passed to consumers without much notice, and would have no net impact on Wal-Marts profit.)

Currently Wal-Marts competitive advantage comes from low-prices, so it is understandable that they would be reluctant to take actions that go against that strategy. However, they are no longer the hungry young competitor in most markets. They are the heavyweight and can be a leader in setting the rules of the game. If they go Union they could very easily turn it into a key part of strategy. Eventually the other major retailers to follow the lead of Wal-Mart.

This would all provide Wal-Mart with a way to build an image as a company that cares about people (something they seem to be working for according to my reading of their commmercials). There would be a definite lag in their competition catching up. Meanwhile they can truthfully and actively market themselves as the company that cares about the American worker. Most union members care about unions, and they will be much more likely to choose Wal-Mart over Target and other competitors. By the time the competition catches up Wal-Mart will have established a clear marketing advantage.

To make this happen there needs to be a good campaign that would make it clear to Wal-Mart that they are a target, that the demands are not high, and that as soon as the demands are met the pressure will be placed squarely on their competition. What it requires is a smart union that works to understand the situation of the corporation. This is what the Las Vegas hotel situation demonstrates best, and what unions are going to need if they are going to be relevant in the "new" economy.

The Wal-Mart situation is currently one where they need to confirm their position in the American economy. In a situation where stability is a value Unions can be a huge asset in acheiving companies goals. And don't underestimate the possible disruption to Wal-Mart's business that just a small labor disruption could cause. What if they couldn't find truck drivers? or Warehouse workers? or Cleaners? or Cashiers? or Store Managers? Each specific job is crucial to the money continuing to flow in, and while the process is not taking place in a single building, it is just as integrated as any assembly line.

Sometime I will put down my thoughts on why this would be a good thing for the nation's economy.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

The New Yorker and more...

I have been very bad about keeping up with my reading of the New Yorker. This makes me sad. I was reading an issue from a couple of weeks ago about the increased us of Special Forces in Iraq. This stuff is pretty scary. Namely that Special Forces can be deployed any where in the world without the approval from Congress. How easy would it be for this kind of thing to spiral out of control? How many stories are we writing around the world that are going to be a blackmark on the US in the future. As a nation we do a great job at forgetting our failures in the past (i.e. massacres in Vietnam, overthrowing governments in Latin America), but I fear that we are going to be producing a whole new set of stories that we will forget but our critics will not.

I hope the stories are not that bad, because each one is going to make it difficult for the US to be a trusted leader of the free world in the future. We are in a battle around the world, and we are the good guys, but that is not an automatic status. The more we throw away the rule of law, the more we open ourselves up to the danger of unjustified killings, the harder it will be to rally the world to our side. We need to be careful that the cost of short-term victory is not a long-term war.

A ray of light...

There was some shockingly good news released on Friday, namely that Libya is going to cooperate to rid their nation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (to the extent that they have any or programs to produce them). I criticism's Bush a lot, but I have to acknowledge that a lot of the credit for this has to go to his policies, or at least a portion of his policies. I did see John Kerry on TV briefly this morning saying that this was an opportunity in play since the Clinton Administration, and while this might diminish the achievement, it is still a huge victory.

However, I want to explain in my view why this validates some of Bush's policies, but does not validate the incredible shortcomings in the implementation. The view that I supported going into the war in Iraq was that leadership was needed to make it clear to the world that those pursuing WMD would be dealt with. I wish that Bush's leadership was able to include the rest of the world in that effort, but did think that it was the right move to put Iraq on the agenda. Now we were grossly wrong in the state of Iraq's WMD program, and while that is a huge problem, it does not invalidate that reason for taking on Iraq. However, once we had inspectors in Iraq I think that we should have given them every chance to do their job and discover either the lack of WMD and force Saddam to come clean on that point or the existence and then force Saddam to dispose of them or deal with a US-led invasion.

The key angle of the Libya thing is that the momentum for this started in March, before the actual invasion took place. It was Bush's willingness to put this front and center on the agenda that forced the issue. It was not the ease with which the US military accomplished its mission that made Libya rethink their policy. The post-invasion story could have been seen in two ways in Libya. The first is that our inability to control a peaceful transition and rebuilding be seen as an indicator that we would not try something so ambitious again. The second is that our total failure in knowing if Iraq had weapons or not led Libya to not take any chances with their WMD program.

The other thing this Libya thing does is put to death the myth that we were always really focused on democracy and freedom in the Middle East. Sure it is great for the people of Iraq that they don't have to deal with Saddam anymore, but to say that is why we invaded Iraq is a total lie. We did it for our own national security, and there is still significant uncertainty if we will be safer in the future. Libya's move is a sign that we might be, but there are other signs that we might not be. Time will tell. However, we are certainly going to cooperate with Libya's move to get rid of WMD and in the process enhance Gaddafi's (BTW: Can we get some agreement on how to spell this name) power over the people of Libya. As long as Gaddafi and other dictators around the world are willing to play nice with the US we are not going to be making a big issue about democracy in their nations. There might be a speech every now and again, but as long as a nation is respecting its neighbors, not supporting terrorists, and not making noises about destroying Israel we are not going to put any real pressure on a friendly nation to become a democracy. I want to be clear that while in a vacuum I would prefer to see democracies, I am not going to start criticizing this policy. I just want to call out the lie about why we are in Iraq.

My final thought on this issue is how it validates cooperation with other nations. The thing that is clear from reading stories about how this happend is that Britain played a key role in making it come together. The were working in cooperation with the US leaders in the State Department. It is seems that the Neo-Cons in the Defense Department were busy trying to put the pieces back together in Iraq while the State Department was being given free reign to play well with others. Hopefully this will allow the State Department the upper hand in the intra-Administration battles and lead the way towards a more cooperative US foreign policy.

In the end, I just want to say that this is a very, very good thing. The capture of Saddam received lots of coverage last weekend, but I was skeptical it was really going to make any real difference to the US security (which I have the luxury of saying, if you are a Presidential Candidate you should be a bit more careful with words). This could make a real positive difference in the future security of the US, yet it doesn't get the same headlines. That makes me sad.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Scary stuff...

As if I need more incentive not to support a Republican along comes this post by Drezner detailing the hate mail that he received after his latest Slate essay. (BTW: The essay is good, it is the usual fair treatment of policy that Drezner provides). Anyway, the hate mail is very frightning, and is almost enough to make one turn against Democracy. How many raving lunatics are there out there who are ready to beleive anything they hear which can be boiled down to "America Good, Other Bad"? The fact that such totalitarian views can be expressed by people supporting President Bush is reason enough for me to know that I will never vote for that man

If you need your faith restored in the intelligence of at least some of our fellow humans look no further than the comments section. Even the most knee-jerk defender of Bush attacker of France, one David Thomson, feels compelled to try to distance himself from the views expressed in the hate mail.

Like Manna from Heaven...

I woke up this morning thinking that I wanted to write something, but I had no idea what. I could write something about population Demographics, which is going to rapidly reshape the American economy, but that would take a lot of effort. Then I start reading my usual morning news sources and within two clicks I am on this NYT Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman. Sometimes he is smart, sometimes he is dumb. Today, I think he is dumb, and I am going to tell you why.

The main thesis of his piece is that Iraq was about Bush and Blair risking their political futures to eliminate a dictator while Chirac worked to maintain his political standing by defending a dictator. I don't pretend to be an expert in French politics, but I know that Friedman is not either, so I feel comfortable giving him a big "mais non!" From my experience in Europe leading up to the war, seeing all the opposition first hand, the opposition to the war had absolutely nothing to do with defending Sadaam Hussein. It was about opposing the right that America was asserting to invade a country with any pretense selected. These people were not buying the claims that Iraq could attack the West with WMD in a matter of minutes (or even months). And you know what...they were right!

Opponents of the war were fools to believe that it was all about oil, that undermined their arguments, but they also turned out to be fools because they only stood against the stated reasons that we were invading Iraq, namely WMD. I beleive the US action was technically legal (to the extent a term exists in international relations) because they were in violation of the UN resolutions. However those resolutions turned out to be misguided because Iraq actually lacked the WMD and simply was not properly verifying that fact. If the argument was made that we were going to eliminate Sadaam because he was a cruel dictator Europe would have had a harder time opposing the action, but that was politically impossible in the US to make the grounding rationale for the war (even for our powerful President).

The unspoken reason for the war is simply to make the US and the rest of the West safer. There is more suffering in Africa, in North Korea, and probably in other places than in Iraq. But Iraq was seen as a place that could change a volatile and dangerous region, while no one cares about Africa, and North Korea is increasingly isolated from the trends in the rest of its region. I think that making the US safer is actually a good reason to go to war. The problem is that Europeans, and myself at this point, do not believe that invading Iraq has made the US safer. The failure to find WMD is one reason, but the simplicity with which the post-war reconstruction was planned is another key reason. The failure to show real visionary leadership in how to make Iraq a peaceful and stable nation is another reason we are not safer. To start talking about freedom for the Iraqi people and getting rid of Sadaam's rule over them (not his threats to others) at this point is great, but it has little to nothing to do with the debate that was going on in the lead-up to the war.

The other issue I have with Friedman's thesis is that I really doubt the capture of Sadaam is going to have much impact on the European rationale for opposing the war. I don't think that anyone really expected Sadaam to come out of some hole after 12 months of hiding and resume leadership of Iraq. I think it was pretty clear that Iraq is going to be a different place than under Sadaam, but the uncertainty was, and remains, what that is going to look like. It still could be a friend for the US in a dangerous region. Or it could be a Shiite-led democracy whose interests are actually more aligned with Iran than the US. The outcome was not going to be determined based on if we find which hole Sadaam was hiding in or not. The French knew this, unfortunately it did not occur to Friedman.

In the end I think that anyone looking for explanations for the French debt forgiveness shouldn't go much farther than fiscal interest. The fact is that Iraq is not going to be repaying all of its debt. They creditors can either take nothing or can re-negotiate. Anyone who has worked in finance will tell you that creditors always take what they can get out of situation rather than stand on some principle and take nothing while hoping that the debt repayment fairy is going to make a visit to Iraq.

Hopefully sometime soon I will write something about how we could have been safer after an Iraq invasion, and why we are now more vulnerable. But that is going to have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Well, I'm back in the US for Christmas, after about four months in Afghanistan. As far as I can tell, things have changed less here than I expected; it's a little counter-intuitive, but a third-world capital like Kabul undergoes change a lot more rapidly than Western cities.

One thing that has struck me, as it has happened time after time in the last two days, is that there are a whole lot of people in Boston and London (where I had a long stop-over) who cannot differentiate between Afghanistan and Iraq. (They're different countries, it turns out.)

A guy who checked my passport in Heathrow and noticed the big Afghanistan and Pakistan visas told me that he figured the car bombs and attacks on US troops would decline in Afghanistan, now that Saddam has been captured. Um, yeah, all those car bombs. The manager at my bank here in Boston asked me if I was sorry to miss the "big day" that had just taken place in Afghanistan. I started to say that, yeah, I was a little disappointed to miss the Loya Jirga, before realizing that he, too, was refering to Saddam.

If you're reading this, I imagine you're aware that Iraq and Afghanistan are not particularly near each other, their populations are pretty dissimilar, their histories couldn't be more different, and even the challenges facing each country are quite distinct. About the only things they have in common are that the US recently overthrew the sitting government and they are both predominantly Muslim (although different sects!).

Sorry to harp on this, it's just a little surpising that relatively educated people have no clue about two of the most important foreign policy issues confronting the United States (and England).

Anyway, if any of you happened to miss my posts, I intend to do so more regularly now that I actually have some free time. Thanks to Rich for taking up the slack and picking fights with the OxBlog. (Speaking of Chafetz and weird arguments, did he ever retract his defense of the Christian Coalition woman?)

For what it's worth, I agree with Josh that it would be a tremendous political move for Bush to nominate Lieberman. But I think State is that last place they'd want someone outside the Cheney/Rove circle (I have no inside information, obviously, but my strong impression is that many of the players in the Administration have long rued the decision to make Powell the Secretary -- I seriously doubt they will select someone who might not toe the party line).

I could see a southern Democrat replacing Rumsfeld, but hopefully we won't ever have to find out what Bush would do in a second term.

An infrequent occurence...

Every once in a while something interesting happens. Namely that someone actually takes note of what I write and calls me on it. Now this usually happens with some kind of attack or stupid thing that I wrote about someone else. It creates a counter-productive situation where I am more likely to be noticed by launching personal attacks on people based on specific things they have written. Well, Josh Chafetz of the Oxblog, rightly called me out for calling him delusional in this post from a couple of days ago. Let me say that I don't think he is delusional, I am not calling for any men with special jackets to arrive at his door, and in fact I read the Oxblog constantly because I think that him and his fellow bloggers are usually very, very insightful in their views.

However, I still will politely disagree with the idea that Lieberman will end up as the next Secretary of State. I explain why in this (edited) response to Chafetz's query on why I think he is a delusional:

I think appointing Lieberman Secretary of State would be good way to look non-partisan, and that it would put an ideological ally in the State Department and that it would ensure an easy appointment. I just beleive that when I look at the basis for Republican popularity in America they are not going to cede key ground in their main advantage over Democrats. I wouldn't say that any appointment of a Democrat to the Cabinet is out of the question (in fact I believe that Norman Mineta is still around as the Secretary of Transportation). I just beleive that the political calculus on the appointment is such that you are much more likely to see a Democrat in a position that is more "Democratic" territory, like HUD or Labor or maybe even Energy (someone with a track record of support for the oil industry like Senator Breaux). In fact we might even see several Dems in those positions as Bush tries to "include" the Dems while really maintaining rock-hard control over both houses of Congress.

For the Democrats the political calculations work the other way. They are more likely to boost their credibility as a party of national security by appointing a Republican to a Cabinent post in "Republican" territory, like Defense. I don't think Clinton was being "magnanimous" (where did I come up with that word!)in his appointment of William Cohen as Secretary of Defense, he was just doing his own political calculus.

I can see that you might not have been considering the long-term domestic political implications of what is a good idea from a number of other perspectives, which is hardly a delusional act. But if you do beleive that Bush is the kind of leader who is going to say, "damn all the political considerations, I need Lieberman here as my secretary of state", then I would have to politely disagree on your assessment of the character of President Bush. And that is not an attack on President Bush, I just see him the same as any other politcal leader, no better, no worse on this front.

Monday, December 15, 2003

A sidebar...

Lost in the shuffle of the news about Saddam there was a story in the NYT yesterday that was quite interesting. It dealt with the lobbying efforts by the Norweigian Cruise Line companies to gain a questionable exemption from a very old law which will allow them to operate cruises between US ports. The situation is that currently there are no major cruise lines operating between California and Hawaii (which would be a lucrative route) because of a law from almost a century ago that prohibits foreign made and foreign operated vessels from operating on domestic routes. This law is a relic from a more protectionist period that was intended to protect our shipbuilding industry.

The problem is that our shipbuilding and cruise operation industry is just so completely uncompetitive at this point that it doesn't make sense to even try to meet the regulations required to operate domestic routes. However a few years back there was a federally funded effort to try to stimulate the shipbuilding industry. After dumping about $180 MM into the project they were left with a half-finished cruise ship and a bunch of parts for another ship. After a few years the Norweigian Cruise Line company entered the fray. Through some sophisticated lobbying they were able to get enough allies (most notably the congressional delegation in Hawaii) to support an exemption that allowed the three ships to be completed in a German shipyard and operated by a subsidary of their company, to qualify as a domestic ship.

The story is so complicated on so many levels, but at the end I think it is a great example of my belief of why lobbying is just not in the interests of business. First is the old law. This law is an artifact, and the delegation from Hawaii has every right to be annoyed by it. They are sacraficing the opportunity to have cruises going island hopping to protect some job in Mississippi that hasn't actually existed for half a century. Then there is the funnelling of money into a clear private sector project because Trent Lott had enough power to gain $180 MM for his state. I am a believer that there are good ways to put public money to work to create jobs for Americans. But the way to do this is not direct subsidies for a particular business. The way it should be done is by creating a workforce, an infrastructure, and a business support system that is the best in the world. There is a rant here that could be written about spend first, think later pork barrell spending, but that will have to wait for another day.

But I think the real example of why this story is so screwed up is the way the benefits of the lobbying go to one particular firm, rather than just to the people of Hawaii. If this was really an effort to help the Hawaiian economy we would see the entire market open to all ships. However what we have here is the government granting a monopoly to one particular company. This reduces competitiveness and overall efficiency in the economy. It is not in the interests of business overall when actions like this are taken. It always seems very appealing to companies when they are able to seek special exemptions that will help them. However it is hard to quantify the costs of all the tiny injustices that they incur by other companies gaining special exemptions.

The best recent example of this is the steel tariffs. This is a special exemption that was gained by a single industry. But as it saved jobs in the steel industry it cost jobs througout the manufacturing sector. The steel tariffs artificially raised the price that auto, durable goods, and countless other manufacturers had to pay for a key material input. They all became less competitive with companies overseas that didn't have restrictions on the steel they could buy. Some of those companies that became less competitive went out of business, and jobs were lost that will be difficult to replace.

Another example is the recent health care bill. For many companies a huge part of their cost structure is providing health care to employees. This could be made cheaper in a variety of ways, from allowing drugs to be imported from Canada to creating a single-payer health care system that will manage costs down to a level equivalent with our key economic competitors around the world. However the interests of those that make money off the current health care system (insurance, Pharma) was too concentrated to allow that to happen. Thus, the benefits go to the few, while the costs are shared by the entire economy.

This story is told countless times, but it is often very hard to see. It is my belief that there should be an organization of enlightened business people who are recongnizing that when influencing government is a key driver of their overall competitivness it is not a good situation for capitalism. I don't expect unilateral disarmament on this issue, but it seems that a parallel effort by many businesses to create a system that limits the influence of lobbyists is one of the best things they can do for their businesses and for America. There is certainly a story to be told on this issue that would be very compelling to CEOs around the country. And hopefully it will be told, and we can find a political party that will choose to be the party of fair capitalism and business as opposed to being a party of specific business (or labor) interests. But I am probably just a dreamer.

Sunday, December 14, 2003


I think there might be three kinds of people who are supporters of George W. Bush. The first is a group of hard-core Republicans / Democratic haters who will basically support any policy of any Republican president with very little thought about the program. The second are people who might have some misgivings about Bush, but at the end of the day just find that his policy in some particular area is too important to them to consider voting for someone else. The third kind is just plain delusional. That is the only way I can explain this speculation by Josh Chafetz of the Oxblog:

If President Bush is reelected, and if Colin Powell does leave the administration, why not offer the SecState job to Joe Lieberman? Good policy move, and an amazingly good political one. Would Lieberman accept? Who knows ... but he probably won't make another run for the presidency, so I don't see why he wouldn't want to accept the most prestigious cabinet post.

What is the world could be in Josh's head to make him think that Bush and team would consider this for even a moment? The Bush administration has only in very rare circumstances allowed anything to trump pure political calculations. There is absolutely no way that they would give a leading Democrat a key role in shaping foreign policy for the US. If Bush wins election in 2004 it is going to be at least in part because of a partial national perception that Republicans are more reliable on national security. Bush and Rove are not going to give the nation the impression that Democrats are competent in this key area of Republican advantage, even if Bush is not going to be running for anythine else ever again. It would make no difference if Lieberman was in agreement with Bush on every single issue (which he is not), they would not give away that key Republican advantage. These people play politics like a battle and they are going to keep playing forever.

As a sidenote, Josh might support Bush for a variety of good reasons, but if his support is grounded at all in a belief that Bush is some kind of magnanimous leader above the political fray then he is badly mis-guided. Also, Bush supporters in the first category are not admirable, but they exist on both sides of the aisle, so there is no need for them to apologize.

The big story...

After many months and many attacks we have captured Sadaam Hussein. That is excellent news, and I hope that it is as meaningful as everyone is saying it is.

At the minimum I think this will give a temporary boost in popularity to US troops in Iraq which should help with reconstruction efforts. Hopefully this will enable us to get some momentum, get the Iraqi people behind all of our efforts, and accelerate the path towards Iraqi democracy and peace.

I do wonder what the impact will be on attacks on US troops. It seems that we have never really figured out who has been responsible for those attacks. If these were Baathists leading the attacks I think there is a good chance we will see a decline in the attacks (maybe not in the short term, but overall). Looking at the hole that Sadaam was in it doesn't seem that he could have been at the head of a centralized command conducting the attacks. But that does not mean that the attackers were not fighting for him at some level. Hopefully those who were working against the move towards democracy in Iraq will at least try to pursue their interests in more peaceful ways.

Some seem to be seeing this as a real turning point, and if either reconstruction accelerates or attacks subside it might be the start of something. But I don't think that it is a real turning point because I didn't believe the US was ever going to leave Iraq and turn it back over to Sadaam. Say what you will about Bush, but I did believe him when he said that we were not going to be defeated in Iraq. It may not be clear how "victory" in Iraq will eventually be defined, but I don't think anyone would see Sadaam back in control in Iraq as a "victory", especially after our inability to locate WMD.

I think the best aspect of the news that Sadaam has been captured, is that he has been captured alive. This is not because of some benevolent interest in seeing a life preserved, but because I think there are so few opportunities to understand the mind of a brutal dictator. What does this guy think, how did he get to amass such power? Learning the answers to questions like this can only help in negotiations with others like Sadaam, most notably Kim Jung Il in North Korea. The other element is to figure out what exactly happenend in the lead-up to the war. Were there any WMD in Iraq? Where did they go? When did they go? Why did Sadaam not come clean? Did he have any strategy for his conflict with the US? The answers to some of these questions could be damning for US policy, so I wonder just how much we will ever learn about it.

The bottom line on this is that I think this is very good news for the people of Iraq, and I hope that it really does lead to a start of great news, but time will tell on that.

Another question kicking around in my mind this morning is if capturing Sadaam is more significant than capturing Osama would be. I know that I would rather see Osama captured, if only because I think he is a far greater enemy of America than Sadaam. But I have no idea if capturing Osama would make America safer either because I think that Al Qaeda might have a dispersed power structure that would continue to plot attacks against the US and Western interests around the world.

Finally, at the end of all this and what it means for Iraqis is the question of what it means for US and world politics. My feeling is that it will have little impact on world politics. I don't think the US will be any more willing to hand over control of Iraq to the UN or a real coalition. Nor do I think the UN and other nations will be any more willing to take responsibility for Iraq. The real endgame is turning Iraq into a peaceful democracy, and if we succeed there I think our success will be acknowledged, and if we fail it will be noted.

The impact on US politics is a bit more clear. George Bush is about to give a speech that will do everything possible to take credit for capturing Sadaam and help paint our adventure in Iraq in a successful light. Meanwhile the Democrats will be in the tricky position of trying to look happy about this when it certainly does nothing to help them in their fight against the President. It is my hope that the American people will be smart enough to realize that this is just a very significant, yet inevitable step in the path that we chose earlier this year. The question of if this path is correct is another question entirely. The capture of Sadaam does not validate the choice of this path, but it is an important step along the road that we did choose.

Update: I just saw Bush's address. It was more measured than I was expecting, but I guess that makes sense. This is one situation that does not need any spinning, people know this is a good thing.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

A lengthy discussion...

The topic of how monumentally stupid (or appropriate) the US announcing that France, Germany, and Russia from reconstructions contracts in Iraq continues to be a hot blogoverse topic. There is an incredibly long and disturbing discussion going on in the comments section at Dan Drezner's blog. The basic views can be summarized in the following two posts. The first is the view I disagree with, by David Thomson, a person I don't think I will ever agree with, or hopefully meet. His points are basically all like this:

We are not similar to the Old Europeans in significant ways. They are far lazier, more socialistic, and tend to wait for America to pull their rear ends out of the wringer.

On the side of being reasonable and grounded in reality is someone going by Joe, who mostly makes points like this:

Do you know what Europeans hate about America more than anything in the world? Their notion--which you apparently have confirmed--that Americans view all Europeans as being jealous that they're not Americans. Our cultures--and cultural values--are so similar that only one thing really can seriously jeopardize America's mutually beneficial relationship with the West. And it's precisely the arrogant American exceptionalist view that you have demonstrated.

I think these two quotes frame the discussion well, and exemplify the differences between the grown-ups that should be running foreign policy, and the simpletons who see the world in stark terms of good versus evil on every front. I don't want to deny that there is good and evil, but that is not what the dispute between the US and parts of Europe is about. And when it gets framed that way possible solutions that are good and reasonable get lost.

There is a strong tendency in the simpleton mindset to forget the fact that our "enemies" in Europe are democracies just like us. They have leaders who are also politicians who are not above pandering to the voters. These voters react in ways just like us, when they are getting attacked they don't navel gaze, they look for enemies and try to punish them. That is what they are doing to us, but it is what we are doing to them as well. It is the role of a good leader to rise above this fray and frame issues differently and chart a course where the people realize that even if the other is different they can still be our friends.

This seems to be completely lost in the commentary of many people who always rise to the defense of our current nations's leaders. Sure, when you are playing Risk at home you win by taking on people and reaching world domination. However that is not what wins in real life. In real life we win by cooperating and working together towards common ends. So much is lost in the conflict that you can never make it up in the end by having it all. The basic rewards of peace and cooperation are so great that the chimera of winning is dwarfed in comparison.

The sooner that we start realizing that not every relationship and action is about taking sides and "winning" the better off we will be. This is not to say that there are not conflicts out there that need "winning" but we should be much more careful how we determine which situations fit into that mode. If the other side is not bent on destroying us, I think that we should not be looking to "win" in our relationship with them. Thus, Afganistan, which knowingly harbored a group that launched a deadly attack on the US gave us no choice but to enter into the win/loss frame. In Iraq the situation is a lot trickier. With North Korea it is even trickier still. But to see everything, from a relationship with China over trade to a relationship with Europe over how to make the world more peaceful and democratic in this win/loss frame is going to lead to a far worse outcome than just figuring out better ways to cooperate.

Sometimes I wonder just how screwed up the world can become before everyone wakes up and notices. It is a matter of curiousity, and I wish that this could all be played out in a game, where once things get super-screwed up you can just restart and learn from all the mistakes. My fear is that we are going to make all the mistakes and there will be no way to start again. Thank you President Bush.

Friday, December 12, 2003


The Oxblog is great because they speak from a principled point of view rather than a partisan point of view. Sometimes I disagree with their principles, but that is OK. However, when the President and his administration screw things up they are not afraid to call them on it. This post about the contracts in Iraq rightly takes the President to task for putting American corporate and political interests ahead of the interests of the people of Iraq (somehow I have a feeling this is not going to be the first time the interests of the people of Iraq run squarely against the political interests of the President...and it will be interesting to see how moralistic proclamations work in the future at keeping the principled hawks aligned behind the President)

Thursday, December 11, 2003

So true...

Via Planetizien I found this article in praise of London buses. I agree completely, during my year in London I went from being utterly confused by buses, to almost always choosing to take buses instead of the tube.

Football greatest hits...

This post is a placeholder for a variety of football related posts that I made last year which still generate a lot of traffic to this site.

There is a huge amount of interest in young Americans playing soccer overseas. The two most notable young American footballers in England are Danny Karbassiyoon and Danny Szetela .

The Karbassiyoon saga on this blog starts here in this post that picked up on the news that he was signed by Arsenal. It continues in this post which has some links to some research I did on his background. Both of those posts were ahead of the curve though, because a day later is this post (with links) regarding some stories in England about "the American Revolution in our game." Another great post if you are looking for information about Karbassiyoon and other young American football players is this post with links to a variety of US-based soccer web sites.

The Szetela story is mostly told in the links above, but there is also this post when I noticed some rumors regarding him coming to England.

And then the media sunk the boat...

I have written several times about Richard Florida's "Creative Class" idea (and I am not summarizing it again, so just follow the links (starting here) and you can learn more). Since I have actually started working in local economic development I am now beginning to recognize the flaws in the thesis. It is not that Florida is wrong (maybe his constant promotion of the it is, but not the idea), rather it is that it cannot be the answer to the economic development needs of all cities.

Today there is a large article in the Home and Garden section of the New York Times dealing with Florida's idea and the efforts of Memphis, Cincinnati, and some other cities to get on the cutting edge of it. Red flag number one is when an article about something very important to people's lives starts showing up in the Home and Garden section. But the problems I have are not just with the article, it is with the entire media buzz, and the way every city in the nation is jumping on this bandwagon right now.

I think that while cities like Austin, San Francisco, and Boston might be very successful because of their young creative populations, that is not the only path to local economic prosperity. There are a wide variety of people in the world, and not one place can be everything to everybody. Rather each place needs to find what it is best at. I don't know much about Memphis, and for all I know Memphis might be an overlooked gem that young people are just not aware of. But let's assume that Memphis is really just not that attractive to young bohemians (which is actually who Florida is focused on). Memphis still might be great for people starting young families or people who have kids starting school.

Boston right now is absolutely wringing its hands over the loss of the "middle class" to other New England states. What Boston is learning is that in becoming a center for the knowledge economy it squeezes out other people. These are still people who can be very valuable to a local economy, and they have to move some where. I think that if a city like Buffalo or Grand Rapids can become a preferred destination for these people (who are also young, but maybe starting families) then they can also experience success.

There are some other problems that I have with this article and some of the ideas or stats that it expresses. One element of Florida's thesis is that Creative people start companies and that these companies are the engine of the high-tech economy. Sure young, small companies might be the engine of the innovation economy, but there is still lots of economic activity and lots of productivity that still goes on in large companies. The article quotes the stat that 75% of jobs are created (or exist, I forget which) in small companies. However I think that stat is grossly misleading. As Michael Porter has constantly pointed out the success of a local economy is dependent on the success of firms in "traded" clusters. That is firms which are producing goods and services which attract money into a local economy rather than just serve people in the local economy. I think that if one looked at the jobs in traded cluster they would find that there are still a huge number that are in large companies. It is not hard to understand why either. Traded cluster companies are competing nationally and internationally, as such they need scale. Local companies are serving much smaller areas, thus less scale is needed.

A last thing that I want to mention on this (before I run off to work and try to figure out a way to make some money with these ideas) is that the entire thesis that jobs follow people is entirely untested. It definitely makes sense that companies will start where there are people with the skills they require. But many jobs are not started by companies with such freedom of mobility. There are many companies that have a history in an area, and relocating would impose huge costs on the people who are already working at a firm. In the NYT article FedEx says that they have trouble attracting people to work in Memphis. However things are never so simple. What is simple is that they have trouble attracting people to Memphis to work for what FedEx is offering to pay them. However, does anyone think that FedEx would have better success attracting people to work for them if they were located in Boston and offering the same wage. Without knowing what FedEx pays I find this idea ridiculous. They would probably have to pay twice as much in Boston. It is expensive here because people want to live here. I think that FedEx should think twice before they put their energy behind turning Memphis into Boston.

Rather I think they should get smart about creating a niche appeal to Memphis. I think the best solution for FedEx would be to figure out what kind of person they want to attract. Then they can see what kind of city would appeal best to those people. If they can make the city appeal to those people only they will have addressed their worker recruiting problems and had only a limited impact on the cost of living in the area. I don't think this stuff is rocket science, but following the latest fads when you are talking about long-term changes just smacks of a bad idea.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Kicking them while they are down...

It was probably just bad timing, but you have to wonder what people in Russia are thinking about the US today. A suicide bomber hits in the heart of Moscow, showing that they are fighting the same war against terrorism that the US is, and then they learn they are going to be completely shut out of any contracts in Iraq as part of a relatively spiteful move on the part of the US government. I have no particular interest in seeing contracts go to Russia, but it seems that we should at least look for the best people to do each job rebuilding Iraq. Oh well, I guess I am wrong about that as well.

An curious aspect of the Iraqi contracts ruling is that the members of the "Coalition of the Willing" allowed to compete for contracts include Saudi Arabia and Turkey. If I recall correctly weren't US troops barred from using both of those nations as launching points for the invasion? I sense there might have been more to their cooperation than was publically acknowledged. Nothing like open dealings in a region where we are encouraging democracy.

The big story...

There was a time, perhaps close to a year ago, when I was intrigued by Howard Dean. I thought that his campaign was going to be very interesting. I didn't give him much of a chance, but I was really into the West Wing and I thought that there were a lot of similarities between him and Bartlett. I was thinking that if I wasn't heading off to London it would be really interesting to try to volunteer/work for him and be a part of something interesting.

A lot has happened since then. Howard Dean has become a phenomenon. He somehow captured the energy of all the people like myself who were intrigued and turned it into a real campaign. He has done some remarkable things to harness the energy of so many people. He took some gambles, and they paid off.

However the near inevitability of the Dean nomination at this point is not something I am excited about. I think everything he has done is great for a primary, but I am not optimistic about his chances against Bush. I have been saying for a long time that Bush is beatable. I don't think that Bush a shoe-in for 2004 and I don't think that he is doomed to defeat. It is going to take an excellent national campaign and a few mistakes by Bush for a Democrat to win next year, but it is not mission impossible.

The thing is that I just don't think Dean is up to it. I think there is very little about Dean that will make a portion of America instinctively trust him with national security. There are a lot of people out there who just don't trust Bush, but not enough to kick Bush out of the White House. I think anyone running against Bush is going to get those votes. The challenge is going to be get enough other votes to win an election. Those votes will come by someone creating a vision for America's future that is more positive that what Bush is able to produce. Bush has a head start in that he has demostrated leadership. People may not feel as safe as they did four years ago, but they don't blame Bush for that, rather he gets a lot of credit for taking on the people that threaten us. There are candidates out there that have experiences which I think would lead people to give them the benefit of doubt on the security front, but Dean is not one of them.

As bad as Bush has been he is savvy in his failures. They are mostly things that are difficult to turn into sound-bites, and thus I think the pain our nation is going to feel in 5 years will not be the issue it should be in this campaign. I just don't think that most of America is still willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt unless there is some alternative that is just too intriguing to pass up.

My real concern with Dean is that he is too stubborn and has too much of a temper to drive a national campaign forward for months on end. I think that there will be mis-steps and those will spin out of control because Dean is too convinced that he is right rather than doing what makes sense. In a way this is admirable, but as we saw with that Confederate Flag flap a month ago it can really get Dean into some unnecessary trouble. That is the last thing that the Democrats are going to need to win.

All this said there is a lot about Dean that would excite me if he was President. I think the roots of his campaign will allow him to make a lot of interesting things happen. He is making some noises recently that are disturbing (most notably his attacking Bush for repealing the steel tariffs) but I think that in general he will govern as a moderate. My problems with Dean are just much more that when I see him as the Democratic nominee I see another four years of George W. Bush. That is the only element of his campaign that I am really opposed to. I really hope that I am wrong, I am not emotionally invested in seeing Dean lose, it is just that when I look at the Dean/Bush match-up I don't see the best chance to end the worst presidency in history.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

If you're drinking some coffee and reading the NY Times magazine this morning, and you happen across an article glorifying Afghan food, don't be fooled. The food here, as a whole, sucks. Take my word for it, as someone who enjoys eating.

I've been to the Gandamack Lodge, incidentally, and while it's a nice place, the dining experience is nothing to write home about. Excited to see sausages on the brunch menu, I was a little disappointed when they brought out a couple of boiled hot dogs.

The kharbuza (melon), however, is superb -- although it's sadly out of season right now.

So I guess Andrew Sullivan's right... the NY Times does need some better fact-checkers.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Something I know about...

One of the luxuries of having a relatively low readership level on this blog is that I can write things that I might not want to see picked up on the news in a week. So I thought that I would write a post about some interesting discussions that I have been having at work. This is not related to any particular project I am working on, but just about some buzz going on in the local economic development community.

Probably the dominant theme in the world of local economic development today is the so-called, "Creative Class" idea being peddled by Richard Florida. I have written about this in several contexts previously (here and here) but as a quick refresher, the basic idea is that cities succeed based on their ability to attract a young, educated workforce. These workers are "creative" and move to cities that have a good quality of life and are reasonably diverse. Thus, success of your local economy depends not on attracting businesses, but on attracting good workers. Now I might have some quibbles with some of the analysis behind this, and think that perhaps a bit too much is being made of this idea, but generally I can't disagree with the general concept.

Along with this emerging guiding principle to economic development there are lots of studies being done regarding the success of different cities in this competition for "creatives." There are certainly cities for whom attracting and retaining creatives is a real problem (i.e. Pittsburgh and Cleveland) but one might assume that Boston would be a big winner in this competition. After all the conventional wisdom is that Boston has large clusters in highly innovative industries, it has some of the best universities in the nation, and has property values that are shooting through the roof.

However, for some reason (and I will not speculate as to motives) there have been a series of studies done recently about why Boston is losing the migration game. Last month the Boston Foundation released a study done by BCG that included a survey about why college graduates leave the Boston area (sorry, no link, their web site is down). This week MassINC released a study on Migration patterns that while not sounding an alarm on migration it did raise a series of concerns about Massachusetts ability to attract people.

When I see studies that go against conventional wisdom (or at least my wisdom) I start to question the assumptions behind these studies. After spending a little bit of time digging into the data on this I think there are some other factors going on that are not being recongnized by the doom-peddlers. First, is that there are some demographic shifts in the population that are making this problem look more serious than it really is. We have all heard of the Baby Boom, but I think that often the effects of it on the labor force are overlooked. Essentially what is going on is that in 1990 there were a lot of people in the 20-34 demographic group because there were a lot of people born between 1955 and 1970. However, in 2000 there were less people in that age group because fewer people were born between 1965 and 1980. Thus, through no fault of any local economy if you compare the number of people in this important age group you will see a decline between 1990 and 2000.

Most of these studies are smart enough to recongnize this fact, but not pay enough attention to it and the system effects. Let me explain. I think that there is a general pattern of movement for college educated, mobile people(warning: huge generalizations upcoming). Raised in the suburbs these people go away to college and then choose where to live. They mostly select cities with dynamic economies. There are lots of demanding jobs in these locations and thus greater opportunity to advance in the labor market. After spending a fair amount of time meeting a spouse, starting a family, and acheiving a certain status in the labor market these people move out of the city and to the suburbs or other markets. They are no longer valueing the freedom of a dense labor market and instead are looking for stability and a good environment to raise a family.

Now, if you have less people in that younger group and more people in the older group the dynamic economy might look a little worse in migration figures temporarily, but really might be doing the same relative to other places in competiting for the workers who value the dynamism of a dense labor market.

There is another flaw that I suspect is present in the analyses of Boston that I think is not being recongnized. The data shows that the Boston metro area declined in population of the 20-34 age group more than the nation. However, I have a hunch that the decline is actually less than what the demographic trends might have predicted. Boston is a wealthier area, and wealthy people have less babies that poorer areas. I need to check this out, but my hunch is that the decline in the Boston area is being driven by the older, wealthier suburbs just outside Boston. I think that these areas were filled with young people with kids, but the areas have matured and they just have not had room for new young families because the now older families never moved out. This is just conjecture but I am going to look into it.

The bottom line on all this is that I think Boston is doing great. I think that there are tons of cities that would like to have the advantages and industries that Boston has. If Boston were not doing well, there would not be problems of affordability in housing. In the end the premium that people pay to be in Boston shows just how good the local economy is. But if people keep talking about how bad things are, it just might become true.

Sorry about the disappearing act; I recently switched jobs and have been working some pretty awful hours.

It will probably disappoint Rich, who seems to be spoiling for a fight, but I think the Yankees are going to be extremely good next year -- at least co-favorites with the Red Sox to win the American League (although there is still much to be done this off-season). But if I'm Steinbrenner, I can't be too excited about being on the hook for $42 large to Jeter and Giambi in each of 2007 and 2008 (plus another $20 million or so for Jeter through 2010). Neither of them has been aging particularly well so far.

And I think Javier Vazquez is a great pitcher, but I'm just not sure that he's worth giving up Nick Johnson. I'm not sure I'd have had the guts to make that trade, although that's (one reason) why I'm not a GM and Cashman is.

As for the Red Sox, I love picking up Schilling, although it's never risk-free to sign a 38 year-old pitcher to a big contract. I don't know about all this Manny/Nomar/A-Rod business, but at the least, it looks like they'll be a fun team to watch and their rivalry with the Yankees will remain the premier feud in American sports. I'm glad I'll be home for the pennant race next summer.

I'm certainly out of touch with domestic politics, sitting over here in Afghanistan, but everything I've been reading suggests that Dr. Dean is pretty much a shoo-in for the nomination. That so? Whatever happened to the Anyone But Dean backlash that would coalesce around the strongest challenger? A pipe dream? I've liked Dean ever since the NY Times Magazine article about him 18 months ago, but some of the things he's been saying (particularly in regard to free trade) make me a little nervous.

And a lot of his most ardent supporters give me the willies.

In Afghanistan news, the Loya Jirga is going to happen pretty soon (there's some confusion about the exact starting date, which might be the 10th or the 13th -- either way, I'll be in town, which is either pretty exciting or really unfortunate). I have no idea what's going to happen, but hopefully my new position will provide me with some good sources, and I'll be able to make a report before the end of the week.

Hope everyone's enjoying the blizzard in New England. The snow has stayed in the mountains here so far, which is good since they don't have any snow plows in the city.

Friday, December 05, 2003

My bad...

I have been a bit slow with the posts over the last couple of days. I have no explanation, certainly not that nothing has caught my eye. I think the best thing that I read over the last couple of days was an editorial piece by Fareed Zakarria that I found via the Talking Points Memo. I don't know much about the writer except that he is refereced a lot. The piece includes some absolutely spot on critiques of the Bush foreign policy. The money quote, which is from a Malaysia writer) is:

"Bush came to an economic group [APEC] and talked obsessively about terror. He sees all of us through that one prism. Yes, we worry about terror, but frankly that's not the sum of our lives. We have many other problems. We're retooling our economies, we're wondering how to deal with the rise of China, we're trying to address health, social and environmental problems. Hu talked about all this; he talked about our agenda, not just his agenda."

While the title of the piece is Bush's PR problem, it goes a lot deeper than PR. In the absence of any coherent policy agenda for this country Bush has seized on terror as both his ticket to re-election and his only guiding priniciple. In some ways I completely understand a President getting focused on terror, after all the thought that a city could blow-up and there might have been something you could have done about it must be horrifying. But a President needs to be bigger than that emotional feeling. A President needs to focus on the big picture, and see that only talking about the US need for security around the world is not going to help other countries see that we are all in the same project to create peace and prosperity everywhere.

As usual Krugman takes Bush to task this morning, but with a nod towards the fact that not all Republicans are lunatics. His basic line of argument is that the grown-ups are not in charge again, rather this administration is the most irresponsible about the future of any in history. I can't argue there, it is the primary reason why I think that Bush is going to go down as the worst President in history. In fact I become more convinced of this each day. I try to understand that there are people who have views which some what agree with the President and that go directly against the Democrats, but I can't understand why people are fervent defenders of this President in particular. In my relatively mainstream social circles in London and Boston I have not heard a single person even begin to defend Bush in months.

I don't recall the site, but I recently saw a comment (perhaps in reference to that Zakaria piece) basically asking why Hu Jintao got a better reception in Australia than Bush. Someone responded by basically dismissing Australians as just too left-wing to worry about. This is the most moronic comment in the world. If I were to put all of the democracies in the world on a political spectrum that basically characterized the tone of their political discourse Australia would be the closest to the US. The US would be the farthest to the right (which if our left is winning I would actually find satisfying because in the world-wide scheme of things I am closer to the right), and then would be Australia, then the UK, then Canada, perhaps NZ, and finally we would start to see Continental European nations, probably starting south and working our way north. For anyone to say that Australia is too far left is to be completely ingorant of the views of the rest of the world. It is disturbing that people get so focused on what is going on in the US and just don't even acknowledge the rest of the world, I am not asking everyone to keep tabs on the Australian Cricket Team, but please at least realize that when Aussies are turning their back on our leader the problem might be with us and not with them.

The other irony is that when I left Australia there was an emerging controversy regarding a visit from the leader of China (it might have been about planning for this visit, or a previous visit by Jiang). The left was up in arms about Australia welcoming China when there are so many human rights abuses. I guess if you invade another country with no plan for how to clean up the mess that country is you fall behind the human rights abusers in priority of protest.

The bigger issue here though is are we losing all of our allies in Asia. If I were a Malaysia or Thailand of the world I have to say that I would be looking more towards China for my economic and political security. China might not be a democracy, but with the exception of Taiwan my understanding is that they are quite happy to not hold any imperialistic ambitions. Given that their economy is growing by leaps and bounds what is the downside to becoming less US oriented and more China oriented. Now we should not view this as completely adversarial, but I have to wonder what the consequences of this might be. Well, I have written a lot, and gotten a lot off my chest, I am sure there will be time for some good blogging over the weekend.

Let me close by asking Pedro where he is? There is lots of news from "Red Sox Nation" and yet no comment from Pedro. Clearly the Sox are getting themselves in better position for 2004, where are the digs at the Yankees. I am ready.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Oh dear...

Josh Marshall of the Talking Points Memo finds that Nader has an exploratory committee. To read my thoughts on Nader's last campaign, check this out.

If you want to let him know what you think you can send him an email at: info@naderexplore04.org

Here is my email to Nader:

If you run you will do a huge disservice to anything good that might happen in the next election. Just stay out.

If Nader had stayed out of the last race we would not have to deal with the mess that Bush has created.

Just don't run...I am pleading with you...don't run...don't run...don't run

Monday, December 01, 2003

What we learned about English football this week...

Two West London squads both showed us that they are forces to be reckoned with. On Saturday QPR put on a impressive display against Sheffield Wednesday, proving again that they are favorites to win automatic promotion to Division 1.

On Sunday Chelsea showed super-club Manchester United that there is a new force in the English Premier League by handing United a 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge. Of course it will be interesting to see if Chelsea are able to maintain their form through the Spring when the FA Cup, the Champions League, and the EPL race are all heating up. They certainly have the depth to survive, but they are not a squad that has had their championship mettle tested in the past.

BTW: It is very interesting to note that BBC Sport has stories about both managers "urging caution"

In the aftermath...

Iraq continues to be the dominant line of debate in the blog-world. A story in the New Yorker triggered a debate about how things could be better and why they went wrong. A number of people on Drezner's comments section floated stupid theories blaming the French, the media, and planning (as a general exercise, not lack thereof) for our current problems. I try to detail why all of these suggestions are quite silly.

There is an outstanding amount of partisan vitriol passing itself off as thinking in this comments section today.

First is that as many news reports and personal accounts from Iraq attest everything is not going great. Everything is not going bad either. It is not a problem to focus on the areas that are bad because that is where there is work to do. When we invaded Iraq we did not say "we want a liberal democracy...except in the areas where people hate us" We got the whole thing and need to make it right.

So, once we acknowledge that there is a problem in Iraq (not that all of Iraq is a problem) we can start having an intelligent discussion about what are the sources of that problem. Some suggested sources of that problem that I want to dismiss straight away are the French and the media.

I hated what the French did in the lead up to the war as much as the next person, but looking back they had a good point to make. We were invading a nation on the justification that it violated UN resolutions regarding possessing WMD. (A key point is that it was not actually possessing WMD, but just violating resolutions regarding them). The French caused us to send in inspectors and while they were not finding any evidence, and being allowed to search the country, we invaded. It seems that the French might have been on to something by trying to get proof that Sadaam had no weapons, which might have gave some will back to his domestic enemies and led to an Iraqi led overthrow of Sadaam. That might have happenend, but we will never know.

The French were also blamed for blocking our invasion from Turkey. They might be at fault here, but my question is "So what?" We took out the Iraqi army with the greatest of ease, in the areas in the south we still did not capture the hard-core fighters, and up until recently the north was held up as an example for how things should be in Iraq. All these things are evidence to me that not invading from Turkey did not turn out to be a problem.

The media are not at fault either. They are reporting on the things going wrong. That is what they do. You don't expect to see on the front page of a US paper a story about a man goes safely to work and returns home in evening (maybe if you read the Onion you expect that story). News is what is remarkable, and what is remarkable are the attacks, not a job well done. So don't blame the media for doing what they do. If you want to read stories about all the jobs well done then by all means rely on the Army PR to tell those stories, just don't expect that because it happens it is news.

One final point that bothered me in this discussion is blaming "planning." As if because things cannot be forecast they cannot be planned for. Well, this is actually what the Army is great at. I am sure they had countless scenarios for what to do at each stage of the invasion. The problem was what to do after the invasion. A plan would be helpful. Something that said, "if no fires, if no refugees, if no chemical attack, then stop looting." The report of the 3rd Division described in the New Yorker article indicated that no such plan was in place, and surely we can look back and agree that it might have been useful to have such a thing.

BTW: While this has mostly critiqued the partisan defenses of the President, the critics are just as bad. One quick example is the attacks on Bush's visit. Winning in Iraq requires motivated troops. Bush's visit was a quick, cheap way to provide a morale boost to the troops. So regardless of how it plays in the media in the US, I just have to say nice work on this one to him.