Thursday, December 6, 2007

Behold my multi-multimedia strategy

My master plan to dominate all most some media came to fruition today.

First there was the bloggingheads diavlog with the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler.

Next came my commentary for NPR's Marketplace in which I do the unthinkable.... I defend the right of superagent Scott Boras to exist:

If baseball is the national pastime, then bashing agents for greed comes in a close second. Before declaring Boras guilty, however, consider the following figures. This year Major Lleague Baseball announced that it had topped $6 billion in revenues for the first time ever. At the same time, the share of those revenues going to player salaries has declined over the past six years, from more than 56 percent to less than 42 percent. In contrast, the National Football League paid their players more than half of its total revenues. At a time when baseball is economically flush, its players are getting a smaller slice of the pie.

A key goal for agents is to get as much money for their clients as possible, and everyone acknowledges that Boras excels at this task. Blaming him for trying to get market value for his players is like blaming Will Smith's agent for getting him over $25 million per film.

For some background on the Boras commentary, check out Ben McGrath's profile of Boras in The New Yorker, David Pinto's excellent analysis of how baseball was keeping down its costs in The Sporting News; and Tyler Kepner's New York Times story on Boras' corporation.

Finally, and most important, the special issue of Public Choice on the politics blogs -- co-edited by Henry Farrell and myself -- is now available online.

That's enough media for today. I'm turning in.

posted by Dan at 10:12 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

So much for China's Olympian vulnerability

I've blogged a few times about whether China's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics has increased the government's vulnerability to domestic and external political pressure.

The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reports that in advance of the Games, China's government is devising new ways to handcuff indigenous NGOs:

Last Thursday morning, five law-enforcement agents marched into Zhai Minglei's Shanghai apartment, seized his computer hard disk and copies of the small magazine he used to publish, and ordered him to report for questioning the next day.

It was the latest blow in what one leader of a nongovernmental organization here calls a "systematic crackdown on the voices of civil society" in China, as the government manufactures the unruffled image it hopes to project to the world during the 2008 Olympic Games.

Civil society groups formed by activists in fields such as environment, social welfare, health, and education "have really suffered setbacks and tougher controls since earlier this year," adds Wen Bo, China program director for the US NGO Pacific Environment.

Mr. Zhai published an open letter online late last month revealing that his magazine, Minjian, an apparently innocuous publication chronicling NGOs' development projects, had been forcibly closed by the authorities in July. His quiet efforts to win a reprieve had failed, he says....

Other groups have also been closed, while organizers of some have been placed under house arrest. Police surveillance has been stepped up, a number of activists report. "Visits by the police are quite normal," says one environmentalist who asked not to be identified.

"It is a difficult period. It has affected all the organizations we work with and anyone else they work with," says one representative of a foreign agency that is funding Chinese NGOs.

Such moves appear to run counter to President Hu Jintao's pledge at the recent 17th Communist Party Congress to "step up education about citizenship" and the hope he expressed that "social organizations [will] help expand participation by the public" in "self-governance."

They also cast doubt on International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge's claim after Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics that "the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record in China." Many NGO activists attribute the current crackdown specifically to government preparations for the games....

The government ensures control over the sector by a restrictive registration process. An NGO needs an official sponsor agency that will take legal responsibility for it. Such agencies are hard to find, most NGOs discover. At the same time, the government allows only one NGO to work in a particular sector in each region. Independent groups often find a GONGO [government-owned NGO--DD] has registered before them.....

NGOs, which as conduits for people's participation in civic affairs often act as the building blocks of civil society, have proved most effective elsewhere when they have created networks among themselves.

That is a lesson Chinese officials appear to have learned: China Development Brief, Minjian, and Gandan Xiangzhao all acted as hubs, encouraging the exchange of information and the creation of networks.

"They initiated activity, made citizens more active," says Professor Jia. "I suppose the government may think it is better for citizens to be quieter."

The imminence of the Olympics, and the world attention they will focus on China, is one reason, say some activists. "Ordinary people's voices disturb the unilateral pursuit of a stable and united political environment and a happy and peaceful atmosphere before the Olympics," says Lu Jun, head of Gandan Xiangzhao.

At the same time, Chinese national-security officials appear afraid that NGOs could develop into a political threat, having seen how NGO leaders played prominent roles in the "color revolutions" that swept former Soviet republics.

"For them, NGOs are new, color revolutions are new; they know NGOs through color revolutions and they fear what might happen next," says Jia.

It should be noted that this reaction to the color revolutions is not unique to China -- it mirrors what governments in Russia, Iran, and Central Asia have done as well.

posted by Dan at 08:09 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Best Prudence... ever

Emily Yoffie -- a.k.a., Slate's Dear Prudence -- provides the best response to an academic query:

Dear Prudence,
I'm a youngish professor dealing with a bad apple in an otherwise great class. I'm pretty good at handling difficult personalities, but this student (male, older) was extremely rude to me in several e-mails and voice messages over an issue early in the term. I elected not to engage him or reply to his inappropriate correspondence, and he either got the message or didn't get the fight he was hoping for, and things settled down (save for a nasty note on a quiz about the same issue). He added my e-mail to a list he distributes, which means I get some benign stuff about local veteran's events, as well as some pretty awful anti-Islamic stuff. Again, I chose to ignore it, rather than get into a political debate with a student who wants to spar with a "liberal professor." Today, he asked where he could buy my book and whether I would inscribe it to him. Signing the book would make him go away, but I hate the thought of giving him anything that's personal or indicates that I like him. Is there any way I can appropriately get out of his request without telling him directly what I think of him?

—I'd Rather Sign a Monkey's Behind

Dear Rather,
Let me see if I understand this: You wrote a book, someone wants to buy it, but you'd prefer he didn't so you don't have to sign his copy. I haven't checked with Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, but I have the feeling that if Jesus Christ showed up at one of his book signings, Hitchens would autograph a copy for him. I assume you're not closing down debate with this student because he's challenging your liberal assumptions (see letter above), but because he's loutish and won't engage in civil discourse. But putting your signature on the flyleaf does not mean you like this man, and refusing to sign seems unnecessarily churlish, especially to someone who wants to buy your book.


The only problem with Yoffie's answer is that it's incomplete -- Hitchens would also try to get Jesus to procure him several drinks and a pack carton of cigarettes as well.

posted by Dan at 07:45 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

All about Condi

My latest bloggingheads diavlog is now online. This time my partner is Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler, to discuss his new book, The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy.

Topics discussed include Rice's tenure at NSC and State, Dick Cheney's brain, a defense of Karen Hughes (also available at the New York Times website), and Condi's future outside of government.

Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 03:45 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Just remember, Hillary is the one with the foreign policy experience

Last month I said the following on NPR's Marketplace:

[T]rade agreements improve America's standing in the world. But Senator Clinton's proposal would strip these agreements of the very certainty that makes them attractive to our allies. How does Senator Clinton think our trading partners in the Middle East, Central America, and Pacific Rim will react to her proposal? How is this proposal any different from the unilateralism that Democrats have condemned for the past six years?

I'm glad that Senator Clinton wants to restore America's image in the world - but I hope she realizes that protectionist stunts will make that task much, much harder.

I hereby owe Senator Clinton an apology -- I forgot to include Europe in the list of regions that are not taking too kindly to Clinton's brand of trade policy.

The Financial Times' Tony Barber and Andrew Bounds explain:

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner in the US presidential campaign, came under fire from Europe’s top trade negotiator on Wednesday for suggesting that, if elected, she might not press hard for a new global trade pact.

“The apparent scepticism about a Doha world trade deal that Mrs Clinton expressed in the Financial Times this week, and her suggestion that there is a need to shelter American companies and interests from foreign investment, are a disappointing sign of the times,” said Peter Mandelson, European Union trade commissioner.

His remarks represented an unusually direct intervention by a foreign politician in a US presidential election.

Mrs Clinton told the FT she believed certain free trade theories might no longer be true in the age of globalisation, but she emphasised “there is nothing protectionist about this”.

Mr Mandelson, at a Brussels globalisation seminar, said: “Politicians have a huge responsibility not to overstate the risks attached to open investment, because we have nothing to gain from a protectionist turn in global markets.”

The former high-ranking UK government minister added: “That is why I would argue that Hillary Clinton’s doubts about the value of a Doha trade deal are misplaced.”

I know Hillary Clinton's had a rough week or two, so in fairness to her, it should be pointed out that she's not the first Democratic presidential candidate to be on the receiving end of foreign criticism.

Still, isn't this sort of fracas exactly the kind of thing that an experienced Hillary Clinton was supposed to avoid?

See Greg Mankiw on the substance of Clinton's claims regarding trade theory. Or check these posts from three years ago.

posted by Dan at 11:56 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

So will Bali accomplish anything?

When it comes to enegy and the environment, anything David Victor writes is worth reading.

In Newsweek, Victor suggests that the upcoming Bali summit won't achieve much of anything:

The effort, though noble, is largely irrelevant to the urgent task of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. The countries that care the most about successful U.N. talks are a small and shrinking part of the problem. Those that matter most—notably China, which in 2007 became the world's largest emitter of warming gases—have exempted themselves from any regulation of their effluent. The Bali agenda offers no route around this impasse and will probably make it harder to solve in the future.

posted by Dan at 08:46 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Sweet Jesus. Sweet, sweet, here-before-everyone Jesus

According to Jacob T. Levy, Philip Tetlock won this year's Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. Tetlock won for Expert Political Judgment, a book that I blogged about a bit on this hallowed web site (see Rodger Payne as well.).

A key point that Tetlock makes is that experts aren't any better at making political predictions than non-experts.

I bring this up now because it's really, really important to remember that there is hard data confirming Tetlock's assertion when you think about the non-experts in the world. Like, for example, these precious few seconds from The View, courtesy of Crooked Timber's Kieran Healy:

Look, the really important thing -- as I told my son sometime this week -- is that the Star Wars saga took place before anything discussed in the video clip.

Dinosaurs too.

posted by Dan at 01:54 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hello, and welcome to Bizarro world politics

If I had told you a year month week ago, dear readers, that the United States was going to be adopting a more dovish position on Iran than the International Atomic Energy Agency, you'd have thought me a pretty foolish man.

I just bring this up because of this New York Times story by Elaine Sciolino:

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday publicly embraced the new American intelligence assessment stating that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons effort, but in truth the agency is taking a more cautious approach in drawing conclusions about Iran’s nuclear program.

“To be frank, we are more skeptical,” a senior official close to the agency said. “We don’t buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran.”

The official called the American assertion that Iran had “halted” its weapons program in 2003 “somewhat surprising.”

That the nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna is sounding a somewhat tougher line than the Bush administration is surprising, given that the administration has long criticized it for not pressuring Iran hard enough to curb its nuclear program.

But the American finding has so unsettled governments, agencies and officials dealing with Iran that it has suddenly upended commonly held assumptions.

There is relief, as one senior French official put it, that “the war option is off the table.” There is also criticism and even anger in some quarters that the American intelligence assessment may be too soft on Iran.

Tomorrow in Bizarro world politics -- Dick Cheney buys Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a flower.

UPDATE: Some of the commenters seem to think I'm dissing the IAEA in this post, in which case I didn't blog clearly enough. What's startling is not the IAEA's position -- they've been pretty consistent in their take on Iran for the past few years. What's startling is the 180 pulled by U.S. intelligence officials between the 2005 NIE and the 2007 NIE, and the mismatch between this latest NIE and the Bush administration's rhetoric from the past few months.

Ironically, for all of the criticism the Bush administration has heaped on the IAEA and Mohammed ElBaradei, it's their consistency that enhances the likelihood of maintaining the necessary coalition that opposes large-scale Iranian enrichment -- which in turn makes it likely that Iran will continue to keep its weapns program in a deep freeze.

posted by Dan at 10:51 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Should you fear the sovereign wealth fund?

Over at Foreign Policy, economist Anders Åslund says that sovereign wealth funds pose greater problems to home countries than host countries:

[S]uch funds are nothing for Americans or Europeans to fear. If anyone should worry about them, it’s the people whose governments are amassing them. That’s because governments tend to be terrible at managing money that is best left in the hands of private citizens. And locking away billions of dollars in wealth can have pernicious economic side effects. Maybe that’s why sovereign wealth funds are popular with dictators and semi-authoritarian regimes, which don’t have to answer for the consequences when they make poor economic gambles....

Consider Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, which wanted to save their oil endowment for future generations, an admirable goal. But today these two bureaucratized emirates look like poor cousins in comparison with freewheeling Dubai, which has much less oil. Because the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait centralized their nations’ wealth in the hands of the state, their state sectors stifled their economies. Abu Dhabi’s fund may be impressive, but the entrepreneurial emir of Dubai has done a far better job of putting sustainable wealth in the hands of his citizens....

In short, sovereign wealth funds are often a lousy bargain for the countries that have them. That may explain why they have been developed mostly by authoritarian regimes in semi-developed countries, where citizens don’t have a chance to demand smarter economic policies. Take Singapore, whose economy depends on trade rather than a declining resource such as oil, and yet has locked up billions of dollars of its wealth in a fund since 1960. The government there has exceptionally managed to maintain its authoritarianism after the country became wealthy, but authoritarian regimes are more vulnerable to economic downturns than democratic systems. Singapore’s unelected rulers need a reserve to pay off dissatisfied subjects to maintain power when economic times get tough.

In democracies, the politics work differently. The only democratic country with a large sovereign wealth fund is Norway. Since the Norwegian fund was established in 1990, every incumbent government has lost elections because the opposition has promised all kinds of popular expenditures from the abundant fund. Democratically, it is difficult to defend an excessive public reserve fund.

Certain international reserves are always needed, and exporters of commodities with highly fluctuating prices require larger reserves as a safety net. However, sovereign wealth funds are something different. They reflect a paternalistic—and economically illiterate—notion that the ruler knows best while citizens are so irresponsible that they cannot be entrusted with their own savings. It would be more economical and democratic to cut taxes and let citizens save and invest themselves.

posted by Dan at 10:30 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Why have oil prices gone up?

In the wake of the latest NIE suggesting that Iran's nuclear program has been frozen in carbonite since 2003, I would have expected oil prices to have fallen. After all, the obvious fallout from the estimate is that neither military nor enhanced economic sanctions will be imposed on Iran anytime soon. If one reason oil prices have spiked is increased political uncertainty, then surely the inteligence finding should have ameliorated these fears.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see that oil prices rose yesterday. Furthermore, the AP report has no mention of the Iran situation, discussing OPEC machinations instead.

This could mean one of four things is true:

1) Oil traders are slower at working through geopolitical ramifications than your humble blogger;

2) Oil traders are so smart that they already knew Iran's nuclear weapons program had been frozen, and had therefore already priced in expectations that the U.S. would eventually discover this fact.

3) Political factors are not as important in influencing oil prices as some commentators believe.

4) The NIE will have zero effect on the expected probability of the Bush administration's decision to use force.

I'm 99.99% sure the answer is not #1 or #2, and I'm 90% sure the answer isn't #4. But #3 seems inadequate to me.

Readers are encouraged to proffer their own answers.

posted by Dan at 12:27 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Your bigthink quote of the day
One great test of our era will be whether creative destruction can flourish alongside public order and political liberty. If not, we're in big trouble. But if so — and I'm an optimist on the point — the results could be a marvel.
From Brad DeLong's review of a Schmpeter biography in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tyler Cowen favors a different selection from the same review.

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

That's one heckuva NIE on Iran
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work....

Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously....

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be. (emphases added)

These are the key paragraph of the latest National Intelligence Assessment on Iran. In a separate New York Times story, Mark Mazzetti tries gets at some of the implications.

Much as I would like to conclude that multilateral economic pressure had an effect, I'm not sure how the NIE concludes that "international pressure" had an effect. If that was truly the case, why did the suspension take place in 2003 rather than later? I mean, gee, what was happening then?

One obvious implication: whatever slim chance there existed of a U.S. military intervention in Iran over the next 13 months just got way, way slimmer.


UPDATE: Kevin Drum provides some useful backstory.

posted by Dan at 01:30 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

We could be facing.... a profanity gap

Mark Lamster has a fascinating post up at YFSF on 19th century efforts to eliminate profanity from baseball. As he observes, "it's amazing how 'fresh' this language seems today, more than a century later."

Click over to the post and read -- indeed, it provides a sharp contrast to this brilliant Conan O'Brien riff on earlier 19th century baseball from a few years ago -- which I believe to be completely historically accurate:

While it's fascinating to read that profanity hasn't changed that much in 110 years, it's also a little disturbing. We're supposed to be the most innovative country in the world -- too innovative, if you believe Paul Krugman. Despite this supposed strength, however, it appears that Americans have yet to improve on "You c$%#-s&^%ing son-of-a-b@#!$!!!"

Should this be a source of concern?

UPDATE: In honor of this post, response to this report, I'm afraid I have only one response: Bob Watson is a pr***-eating bastard!!!

posted by Dan at 01:06 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Praise for Hugo Chavez

Your humble blogger has had great fun at Hugo Chavez's expense for quite some time. So in the aftermath of his first electoral defeat in a long while, it's worth concurring with something that Time's Time Padgett points out:

[J]ust as important [as the referendum's defeat] was Chavez's concession. The opposition "won this victory for themselves," he admitted in a voice whose subdued calm was in contrast to his frequently aggressive political speeches. "My sincere recommendation is that they learn how to handle it." Despite his authoritarian bent, Chavez (whose current and apparently last term ends in 2012) had always insisted he was a democrat — that he was, in fact, forging "a more genuine democracy" in a nation that had in many ways been a sham democracy typical of a number of Latin American countries. His presidential election victories — in 1998, 2000 and 2006, as well as his victory over an attempt to recall him in a 2004 referendum — were all recognized by credible international observers; and that conferred on him a democratic legitimacy that helped blunt accusations by his enemies, especially the U.S., that he was a would-be dictator in the mold of Fidel Castro.

In the end it was a cachet that, fortunately, he knew he couldn't forfeit. As a result, the referendum result will resonate far beyond Venezuela. Latin Americans in general have grown disillusioned by democratic institutions — particularly their failure to solve the region's gaping inequality and frightening insecurity — and many observers fear that Latin Americans, as they so often have in their history, are again willing to give leaders like Chavez inordinate, and inordinately protracted, powers. Chavez, critics complained, was in fact leading a trend of what some called "democratators" — democratically elected dictators. His allies in Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, are hammering out new Constitutions that may give them unlimited presidential re-election. The fact that Venezuelans this morning resisted that urge — and that Chavez so maturely backed off himself when he saw it — may give other countries pause for thought as well. It could even revive the oft-ridiculed notion that this might after all be the century of the Americas.

We'll have to see how Chavez responds to the electoral defeat after 24 hours. Still, if nothing else, Bloomberg reports that Chavez has unintentionally managed to boost the value of Venezuela's bonds.

posted by Dan at 12:07 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)