Saturday, April 14, 2007

What would Jackie Robinson think?

The title of this post have been a running theme of sports columnists over the past few months. As we approach the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color line in the major leagues, columnists and players are bemoaning the declining percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball.

Michael Wilbon's Washington Post column is one of the more nuanced examples of this argument:

The 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball is tomorrow, and African American participation in what was once American's pastime has dropped to a stunning low. Only 8 percent of Major League Baseball players are African American. Historically black colleges and universities field teams that are often one-third to one-half white and Hispanic because African American children have no interest in playing the sport their fathers and grandfathers would play from sunup to sundown from the time slavery ended until the mid-1970s.
The reason Wilbon's argument is nuanced is that he recognizes that this decline is due to individual choice rather than any implicit barrier:
[T]his problem, if it is one, too frequently is being laid at the feet of Major League Baseball. But this isn't a chicken-or-egg conundrum. We know which came first: Black kids stopped playing baseball, to some degree of their own free will. Nobody forced them out, or even nudged them. They fell out of love with baseball, probably at about the time Michael Jordan became America's No. 1 sporting icon, and have had a basketball obsession since the mid-1980s. Football, with its 85 scholarships per Division I school, vs. baseball, with an average of 11.7 scholarships per school, became firmly entrenched as the No. 2 sport in blackworld.

"If I'm a parent whose child needs a scholarship," [MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee] Solomon said, "I'm going to point him to football, where there's a full ride, not to baseball, where there might be one-half scholarship available, or one-third or one-fourth. Most black kids can't go to school like that."

Beyond college benefits, there are powerful financial incentives for poor kids to choose football or basketball over baseball. Because of baseball's minor league "apprentice" system, young players in baseball face a few years in bus leagues before earning a crack at The Show. In their first contract, potential stars will earn far more money between age 18-25 in basketball or football (though star baseball players have longer careers than players in other sports). Furthermore, star athletes from the first two sports receive far more in commercial endorsements -- especially basketball -- in the early stages of their career (as Wilbon points out, LeBron James had a $90 million endorsement deal from Nike before he played a single game in the NBA).

Is this system a cause for concern? Would it make Jackie Robinson sad? The answer depends on whether you believe that baseball remains the first among equals as the sport of significance. Although football and basketball are now equally popular, the cultural and literary traditions of baseball are very powerful in this country. For Americans of a certain age and political persuasion, there is a strong desire to see baseball as the mirror reflecting the way America should be.

I'm a baseball fan, but I'm an even bigger fan of expanded opportunities. So I can't get worked up about it.

UPDATE: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Terrence Moore thinks that commentators are exaggerating the declining interest in baseball among African-Americans. And ESPN's Eric Neel looks at one urban youth academy for baseball.

posted by Dan at 09:25 AM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

True or false?

I'm conferencing tomorrow, so blogging will likely be light.

Talk amongs yourselves. Here's an interesting question, from this Peter Suderman post at NRO's Corner:

[T]he war is a major dividing issue in our country right now. It’s going to be tough to reach even a rough national consensus on it no matter what, but that we can’t even agree on who to trust for information—and, as a result, what’s actually happening—only makes things more difficult.
Question #1: Is Suderman correct in his assessment?

Question #2: if Suderman is correct, then how can any useful policy be formulated?

posted by Dan at 10:08 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Do not freak out about Iran's "industrial" nuclear program

In TNR Online, Michael Levi explains why Iran's claim of having an "industrial" enrichment program is a crock:

[Iran's] progress is actually much less than meets the eye. It has developed nothing remotely resembling an industrial capacity to enrich uranium, nor is there any evidence that it has made surprising new strides toward a nuclear weapon. And taking the Iranian claims at face value would be worse than error; it would be a strategic miscalculation that could help entrench the Iranian nuclear program and make it even more difficult to oppose.

According to the "Iran Dossier" prepared by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 3,000 first-generation Iranian centrifuges operating perfectly for approximately one year could produce enough fissile material to fuel one nuclear bomb. That makes the Iranian announcement sound pretty scary. But it's far from clear that Iran can come anywhere close to perfection in operating its machines. David Albright recently estimated, based on data published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that the centrifuges in Iran's 164-machine cascade were operating roughly 20 percent of the time. If the new 3,000-centerfuge plant functions at that level, it would take five years for it to produce enough material for a bomb. There is, of course, an outside chance that Iran has made immense technical leaps in recent years; but we shouldn't let worst-case fears that lack hard evidence dominate our policymaking.

Moreover, as Jeffrey Lewis has noted, Iran has so far used less than one ton of uranium hexafluoride, the form of uranium used in a centrifuge plant. That number has special significance. Iran bought what experts call "hex" from China back in 1991--one ton's worth, enough for the work Tehran has completed so far. But Iran's homemade hex is thought to be of poor quality: If the Iranians fed it into their centrifuges, the machines could break down. So, if Iran has used only Chinese uranium to date, even its shaky performance so far may overstate its capabilities, since, according to my calculations, it would need at least seven tons to make a bomb. It's possible Tehran has acquired more high-quality hex elsewhere, but IAEA investigations suggest that this is unlikely.

Nor would the Iranian facility be industrial scale even if it were functioning perfectly. Common sense demands that an industrial-scale enrichment plant be able to support a nuclear industry. A simple estimate, though, shows that the new facility would take roughly ten years to produce the fuel needed to operate Iran's single nuclear power plant for one year. If the Iranian facility is industrial scale, then my kitchen is a bakery.

posted by Dan at 12:38 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How does Jeffrey Sachs think about politics?

Via Greg Mankiw, I read with interest Chris Giles' Financial Times interview with Jeffrey Sachs. This part stood out in particular:

We move on to talk about a specific project Sachs is currently involved in, Millennium Villages, where his ideas on fertilisers, malarial bed-nets and the like are tried on the ground. My less-than-ecstatic reaction to his reports of their success is clearly the same as that of many aid agencies. It instantly raises his hackles. I suggest there are many examples where success in pilots does not translate into something that can be replicated on a large scale, and that you don’t necessarily need to try something to know it won’t work. ”I’m sorry,” he is almost shouting now. ”That, I disagree with completely. That’s preposterous.”

I realise I have exaggerated for effect, and counter that it is equally preposterous to insist they will work. ”I know,” he says, ”but how do you actually do something in life? Do you list all the things that may go wrong and then decide we won’t do it, or do you actually try?”

We talk about global warming. It’s easily solvable, Sachs insists, because the costs of doing something about carbon emissions are exaggerated - so people will soon realise that they can cut carbon emissions without much pain. We talk about global trade - all the US has to do is offer an aid, trade and climate change deal to the rest of the world and a solution is within reach. We talk about US healthcare - within a few years, people will see sense and the uninsured will be covered, he predicts.

As coffee arrives, I wonder aloud whether economics really can solve these big global challenges. In Sachs’s world, problems aren’t really problems because there is always an easy solution. I suggest vested interests, national differences and the fact that reforms tend to throw up winners and losers make issues rather more intractable than he believes. Bringing the subject full circle back to his lectures, he says: ”The key word of all of these lectures is ’choice’. A generation has a choice, and we have choices we make collectively... We have some absolutely terrific opportunities... but we miss opportunities all the time. That’s why it is really important to understand what these choices are - and that is what I’m trying to explain in these lectures.”

Every once in a blue moon, politics works like Sachs decribes in the last paragraph. Most of the time, however, politics bears no relationship whatsoever to this kind of model. And the belief that this is how politics works is a problem that seems to plague really bright economists.

posted by Dan at 10:22 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

News stories to make Karl Rove weep

For six years, the essence of Karl Rove's political strategy has been to have a Republican base so unified, motivated, and organized that it gives the GOP a clear leg up on Election Day.

This is why I'm thinking that Rove can't be happy with stories like Martin Stolz in the New York Times:

The invitation extended to Vice President Dick Cheney to be the commencement speaker at Brigham Young University has set off a rare, continuing protest at the Mormon university, one of the nation’s most conservative.

Some of the faculty and the 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who are overwhelmingly Republican, have expressed concern about the Bush administration’s support for the war in Iraq and other policies, but most of the current protest has focused on Mr. Cheney’s integrity, character and behavior. Several students said, for example, that they were appalled at Mr. Cheney’s use of an expletive on the Senate floor in a June 2004 exchange with Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

“The problem is this is a morally dubious man,” said Andrew Christensen, a 22-year-old Republican from Salt Lake City. “It’s challenging the morality and integrity of this institution.”

[Well, it could be worse, right? I mean, Rove can still count on veterans?--ed.] Yeah, not so much now. Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks explain the problem at the elite level in the Washington Post:
The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation.

At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said, underscoring the administration's difficulty in enlisting its top recruits to join the team after five years of warfare that have taxed the United States and its military.

"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," said retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks,' " he said.

The White House has not publicly disclosed its interest in creating the position, hoping to find someone President Bush can anoint and announce for the post all at once. Officials said they are still considering options for how to reorganize the White House's management of the two conflicts. If they cannot find a person suited for the sort of specially empowered office they envision, they said, they may have to retain the current structure. (emphasis added)

[C'mon, that's just a couple of generals!!--ed.] As Bryan Bener explains in the Boston Globe, it's more than just generals:
Recent graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point are choosing to leave active duty at the highest rate in more than three decades, a sign to many military specialists that repeated tours in Iraq are prematurely driving out some of the Army's top young officers.

According to statistics compiled by West Point, of the 903 Army officers commissioned upon graduation in 2001, nearly 46 percent left the service last year -- 35 percent at the conclusion of their five years of required service, and another 11 percent over the next six months. And more than 54 percent of the 935 graduates in the class of 2000 had left active duty by this January, the statistics show.

The figures mark the lowest retention rate of graduates after the completion of their mandatory duty since at least 1977, with the exception of members of three classes in the late 1980s who were encouraged to leave as the military downsized following the end of the Cold War.

[Well, I'm sure things will improve for the GOP in 2008!--ed.] Sure they will.

posted by Dan at 08:53 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The trailer that haunts me today

Surfing the web yesterday, I came across this trailer for Away From Her, a film directed by actress Sarah Polley:

I have no idea if the movie will be as good as this trailer (though it seems to have won a few festival awards). That said, it's been 24 hours and I can't shake this from my head.

The official blog wife thinks it's because I'm becoming a complete sap. This is indeed a possibility.

Click here to see a short interview with Polley about the film.

posted by Dan at 05:15 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Four different ways of looking at KORUS

A couple of days ago Robert Wright laid down a challenge to me on about this post on the proposed Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUS). I argued that KORUS was a step forward for freer trade. Bob's basic contention is more bilateral FTAs that are created, the more the WTO is undercut. Even worse, these sorts of trade agreements threaten Bob's scheme to have the WTO become the anchor of enhanced global governance.

My answer is as follows: there are several different ways to look at KORUS, and whether it's a good or bad thing depends on what you care about:

1) If you care primarily about global trade expansion -- then you have to have mixed feelings about KORUS. On the one hand, the Doha round would have a far greater impact. On the other hand, as Tyler Cowen points out here, even FTAs without most favored nation clauses tend to encourage the negotiation of more FTAs. Plus, the United States and Korea are not small players in the global trading system. In terms of goods or services, the United States and South Korea are among the top 10 trading powers. In other words, this is a large enough FTA to matter on its own (though click here for a counterargument).

2) If you care primarily about U.S. foreign policy -- then KORUS is a (mostly) good thing. The U.S.-South Korea alliance has not had the best of times during the Bush and Roh presidencies. This kind of deal cements and institutionalizes the relationship despite such tensions. This ain't bad. The one caveat is that for those who would like to see the United States disengage from the Korean peninsula would be hard-pressed to do so while this agreement is in effect.

3) If you care about robust global governance structures -- then this ain't the agreement for you. Wright is correct to suggest that the proliferation of FTAs sends a bad signal to the rest of the world about the relative importance of the WTO. As I've argued elsewhere in nauseating detail, the proliferation of these kind of agreements has the paradoxical potential to weaken the overall power and legitimacy of international institutions.

4) If you care about the ends that Bob Wright cares about -- then you should look on the bright side. As I argued on bloggingheads last year, I'm not terribly optimistic that the WTO will (or should) ever take on the attributes and policies that Bob wants the WTO to adopt. Bilateral trade agreements, on the other hand, allow great powers to be more overt in their leverage. This allows the United States to ask for "trade and" measures that appall many free traders like myself, but please people like Bob.

In the end, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. The negatives of this strategy do exist, however -- and other people might trade off these policy concerns in different ways.

posted by Dan at 11:21 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

It's just the 19th nervous breakdown about the blogosphere

Brad Stone has a front-page story in the New York Times about the the fact that the some people display bad manners in the blogosphere:

Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?

The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.

Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.

A recent outbreak of antagonism among several prominent bloggers “gives us an opportunity to change the level of expectations that people have about what’s acceptable online,” said Mr. O’Reilly, who posted the preliminary recommendations last week on his company blog ( Mr. Wales then put the proposed guidelines on his company’s site (, and is now soliciting comments in the hope of creating consensus around what constitutes civil behavior online.

You can take a peek at the proposed code of conduct by clicking here. Comment away there or here. I hereby predict it will go nowhere -- I'm certainly not going to be banning anonymous comments anytime soon.

The one fascinating thing about Stone's story is what's not in it. Despite endless complaints about rising partisanship in the blogosphere, no example was given of declining civility in the political blogosphere. That doesn't mean it's not happening, of course, but it's still surpring that Stone failed to offer up such an example.

UPDATE: Katherine Mangu-Ward has an interesting take over at Hit & Run.

posted by Dan at 08:11 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Open Starbucks overheard conversation thread

Virginia Postrel relates a conversation she head while at a Los Angeles Starbucks: "Two screenwriters working over a script that features both the CIA and some kind of evil mercenary hired by...a pharmaceutical company."

For some reason, the Starbucks I occasionally frequent here in the Boston area has much stranger conversations than the Hyde Park Starbucks. In the fall, I overheard two IT consultants bemoaning the fact that some outfit in Sudan (???!!!) was getting a whole bunch of World Bank money that allowed them to be competitive in some niche market. I have no idea if this was true or not, but it safely distracted me from work for twenty minutes.

Here's a good Monday question for readers -- what was the strangest conversation you have overheard in a coffee house?

posted by Dan at 08:03 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)