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Brief Thoughts on the Atlanta Braves

[ 0 ] August 20, 2006 |

The Atlanta Braves have, in one form or another, been playing baseball since 1876. Indeed, in their Boston incarnation the Braves franchise has been playing since 1871, although the National Association is generally not referred to as a Major League. The early Boston franchise was very successful, peaking at 518 games above .500 by the end of 1902. In 1903 things took a turn for the worse, however, and the Braves began a long slide into irrelevance. At the end of 1922, the Braves were a mere six games above .500. On May 28, 1923 a doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies put the Braves at .500 as a franchise. They rallied to win two straight, then lost three to go under .500 on May 31. On June 1, the Braves saw .500 for the last time, as they beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 11-6. They then proceeded to lose twelve straight, and ended the season 54-100.

In spite of some strong teams in the 1950s and 1960s, the Braves remained below .500. At the end of the 1990 season, the Braves found themselves 523 games short of even. The first edition of the Bobby Cox Braves didn’t open strong, and a 3-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on April 20 put the Braves at 3-6 for the season, 526 games under as a franchise. From April 20, 1991 until the end of the 2005 season, Cox’s Braves went 503 games above .500. They opened 2006 with a chance to even up their franchise record, needing to go 88-64 to find themselves on the sunny side of .500 for the first time since May 1923.

As we know, things haven’t gone well for the 2006 Braves. They’re seven games under .500, and there’s no reason to believe that they’re going to turn things around soon. Nor am I particularly optimistic about the next couple of seasons at Turner Field. It looks as if the Braves’ luck has finally run out, just short of what was needed to wipe away their historic futility. Still, it’s a good organization with a solid financial base, so I suspect that within the next five years or so they’ll be able to string together enough winning seasons to crest .500. I wonder, though, if the 65 year old Cox will still be with them, or if he’ll be the Moses of the Atlanta Braves, destined to lead them to the edge of the Holy Land but never to enter.

Book Review: China’s Trapped Transition

[ 0 ] August 20, 2006 |

This is the sixth of an eight (but probably just seven) part review series of the Patterson Summer Reading List.

1. Colossus, Niall Ferguson

2. Illicit, Moises Naim
3. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
4. The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman
5. The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack
6. George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate
7. Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition

Predicting the end of China’s economic boom is a project somewhat akin to predicting the collapse of the Braves dynasty; it has to end at some point, but there’s a lot of time for people to be wrong.China’s Trapped Transition by Minxin Pei argues that, indeed, the People’s Republic of China is running up against hard constraints on its growth, and that the PRC will shortly begin to face a severe economic crisis. The prediction is bold but at the same time of one with many other arguments on a Chinese economic collapse. So many have predicted such an outcome that one will be in good company whether or not the prognostication is correct.

Pei argues that the gradualist mode of economic transition inevitably runs into difficulties when combined with an authoritarian mode of government. The dynamics of such transitions create opportunities for the central government and government officials to pursue rents that are inimical to economic development. In short, it is impossible for an authoritarian government to create long term economic growth through a gradualist strategy. At the same time, Pei points out that quicker developmental strategies undermine the grip of an authoritarian government on society. We are left to conclude that it is difficult to impossible for a government to pursue market economic reforms without accompanying political reforms.

The argument is well constructed as far as it goes, and Pei makes a compelling case that some elements of the authoritarian state run directly contrary to prolonged economic development. Pei’s research is outstanding, and his theoretical position firm. However, two major questions stand out. First, how has China thus far managed to maintain economic growth without political reform, and why should we believe that now is the time that the two factors will clash? Second, how useful is this argument if an authoritarian state cannot, as Pei argues, remain in power by pursuing a rapid marketizing strategy?

China’s growth rate will eventually wane. Pei’s problem is to demonstrate that it will wane in the near term for the reasons he believes. Pei argues that the CCP is moving from a developmental to a predatory state, one that will dissipate any economic gains and leave China without a substantially greater economic pie. Examining the grain, telecom, and banking sectors, Pei tries to demonstrate that the interference of state officials has severely constrained growth. He does a decent job of arguing that interference in the banking sector forbodes severe growth problems in the future. His argument about grain and the telecom industry is much less compelling, as he can show that interference may have slowed growth, but not that it has reversed it or caused significant economic damage. From Pei’s account, it seems to me that the CCP has muddled through thirty-five years of economic reforms, but he doesn’t show conclusively that it will fail to continue to muddle through. He can’t tell us why the perversities created by the coexistence of an authoritarian state and a market economy will stop economic growth now, rather than ten years ago or ten years in the future.

Gradualism thus far has been a brilliant success for the CCP, because it has been able to achieve consistent economic growth without giving up substantial power. If Pei is to be believed, and China’s future growth will be severely constrained, then the CCP will be in trouble. However, if Pei is correct that swift reforms invariably undermine authoritarian regimes, then we have a quandry. It’s hardly surprising, given the latter, that the CCP has chosen a gradualist strategy. The policy value of Pei’s argument comes not for the CCP (it is entirely useless to tell the CCP that it needs to reform politically to spur economic development when the CCP clearly cares more about political power than development) but rather for Western countries and NGOs that might deal with market and political transitions in the future. Still, the argument runs up against the problem of what has been China’s remarkably successful employment of the gradualist strategy thus far; what Pei describes as failure looks very, very good.

I’m uncompelled by the argument that the CCP cannot continue to muddle through. Economic reforms thus far have been iterative; when a particular strategy fails, new strategies are tried. The reform process has not been static. Corruption in China is obviously bad, but the corruption problem also offers the center a useful narrative and legal tool for keeping the rest of the party in line. Nevertheless, Pei’s analysis is solid and serious, and he may in the end be vindicated by events.

73 MPH Fastball and Plenty of Class

[ 0 ] August 20, 2006 |

Godspeed to Jamie Moyer. He was well worth the price of Darren Bragg…

Sunday Battleship Blogging: USS Lexington

[ 0 ] August 20, 2006 |

The United States made a very late entrance into the battlecruiser game. The reasons for this are unclear; the Royal Navy built the world’s first battlecruiser in 1908, with the Germans and Japanese quickly following suit. Since the USN viewed the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy as its most likely foes in the early part of the twentieth century, it’s surprising that the Americans would concede the battlecruiser race to enemy navies. The most charitable interpretation is that the USN recognized the basic problem with the battlecruiser form; its inability to participate in the line of battle because of light armor. The Japanese recognized this problem as well, but decided that, given the size of the Pacific theater of operations, battlecruisers would nonetheless be useful. To the credit of the USN, it consistently built the best protected battleships in the world, which may have made the battlecruiser culturally unpalatable.

The USN began to think seriously about battlecruisers in 1912 and 1913. The first designs were genuinely appalling; one early design was over 1000′ long, could make over 36 knots, but was armed with only 8 12″ guns. The first serious design was commissioned in 1916, and envisioned a ship with seven funnels, 10 14″ guns, boilers on two levels, and a speed of 35 knots. When the United States became involved in World War I, the Royal Navy handed over the plans to HMS Hood, which revolutionized the US design. In the final design, the Lexington class battlecruisers would carry 8 16″ guns in four twin turrets, displace 43500 tons, and make 33.25 knots. The design was competitive with but probably inferior to that of the Japanese Amagis, which would have carried heavier armor. Both the Japanese and the American ships would likely have been outclassed by the British Invincible class. The battlecruiser naming strategy was odd largely for the lack of any particular strategy. While the USN has historically been very programmatic about its ship names (submarines after fish, battleships after states, cruisers after cities, destroyers after people), the proposed names of the battlecruisers were Lexington, Constellation, Saratoga, Constitution, Ranger, and United States.

The Washington Naval Treaty intervened, and almost all the new battlecruisers were scrapped or cancelled. Because the Royal Navy had converted several ships into aircraft carriers prior to Treaty ratification, it was decided that the United States and Japan would both be allowed to convert two of their incomplete battlecruisers. The United States Navy decided to spare Lexington and Saratoga. In her new incarnation, Lexington displaced 38000 tons, could carry 91 aircraft, and could make almost 34 knots. The conversion worked out beautifully, with Saratoga and Lexington being far more effective as aircraft carriers than they would have been as battlecruisers. Of course, it took a while for the USN to figure out what to do with its huge new ships, and Lexington spent most of the prewar period participating in exercises and simulations designed to determine the proper employment of the fast carrier. The most famous of these involved surprise air attacks on the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor. The sparing of Saratoga and Lexington led to an aircraft carrier naming convention that, with exceptions, tended to focus on major battles (Essex, Enterprise, Yorktown, Midway, etc.)

Lexington was one of three carriers in the Pacific at the beginning of World War II. Fortunately, all three were away from Pearl Harbor during the attack. Lexington was ferrying aircraft to Midway, but participated in the search for the Japanese task force after the attack. In early 1942 Lexington participated in raids against Rabaul and other targets in the South Pacific before returning to Pearl in March. On April 15 Lexington left Pearl Harbor to rendezvous with the carrier Yorktown in an effort to stop the Japanese advance on New Guinea. The Japanese were launching a maritime effort to seize Port Moresby, allowing them to severely degrade communications between the United States and Australia.

The Battle of Coral Sea began on May 7 with the sighting of the small Japanese carrier Shoho. Lexington’s dive bombers destroyed Shoho in less than ten minutes, but failed to locate the two much larger Japanese carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku. Both sides launched strikes on May 8, and both airgroups found their targets. Planes from Lexington and Yorktown severely damaged Shokaku, but failed to sink her. Lexington was hit by two torpedos and three bombs, but because of her large size and sound construction, was able to maintain speed and begin to recover her aircraft. Unfortunately, damage control was not up to the standard it would reach later in the war. Gasoline fumes spread on the lower decks of the ship, resulting in a huge explosion. With uncontrolled fires raging, Lexington was abandoned by her crew. Shortly thereafter she was scuttled by an accompanying destroyer. The battle has typically been rated both a tactical and strategic victory, despite the loss of a fleet carrier, as the Japanese invasion failed and Shokaku and Zuikaku could not participate in the Battle of Midway. Lexington’s sister, Saratoga, survived the war and was sunk in the Bikini atom bomb tests.
Trivia: What battleships carried the heaviest broadside before 1940?

Book Review: Assassin’s Gate

[ 0 ] August 19, 2006 |

This is the sixth of an eight part review series of the Patterson Summer Reading List.

1. Colossus, Niall Ferguson

2. Illicit, Moises Naim
3. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
4. The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman
5. The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack
6. George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate

Assassin’s Gate is authored by George Packer, a “liberal hawk” who supported the intervention in Iraq and who remains unconvinced that a) it has irrevocably failed, or b) that it had to fail. Like all perspectives, this one is limiting, but it does allow him to concentrate on the disastrous ineptitude of the occupation without having to deal with the question of whether or not the endeavour was doomed from the beginning. As an aside, I am unconvinced that the Iraq operation was doomed to failure from conception, but I believed then and believe now that the Bush administration was utterly incapable of doing the necessary work; an administration that didn’t believe in governance, couldn’t be bothered to make the compromises and deals necessary to assemble multilateral support, and consistently subverted every project, foreign and domestic, to partisan political gain shouldn’t have been trusted to run a Quiznos, much less rebuild a country. This should have been obvious to Packer, Beinart, and the boys at TNR at the time, but I digress…

Packer effectiveley reminds us of the claims made by war advocates prior to the war. Hawks did not, as they are so fond of claiming now, simply suggest that Iraq and Al Qaeda had a history of mild cooperation checkered by often violent disagreement. Rather, they asserted a strong operational relationship between the two, one that had been important in the past and would extend into the future. With due apologies to Stephen Hays, they did not limit their claim to allegations that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated in the mid-1990s on radio broadcasts, or that an occasional Al Qaeda operative found a temporary haven in Iraq. At the Weekly Standard and Fox News, “connection” pimps have established a “Hussein and Al Qaeda never cooperated at all” strawman that they’ve taken delight in tearing down. They remain unable to substantively deal with the actual situation; in spite of having the bulk of the Hussein regime and much of Al Qaeda subject to interrogation, and of having most of the security files of the former, no one has been able to establish any linkage of real operational significance between the two. The question of weapons of mass destruction has developed similarly, and again Packer reminds us of the actual claims made by the administration and its enablers, which remain quite indefensible even in the face of such “discoveries” as 500 artillery shells spread about the country, none of which still had active chemical elements, or the occasional Iraqi source who insists, never with any evidence, that he personally saw the weapons transferred to Syria. Indeed, it would have been better had Packer assessed those claims as critically in 2003 as he does now, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Packer also gives a multifacted account of the war, speaking with individuals with a host of different viewpoints on the war. This includes neocon intellectuals, US military officers and enlisted personnel, Iraqi exiles, aid workers, and Iraqis from all walks of life. To his credit, Packer doesn’t try to synthesize all of this into a single lesson about either Iraq or the more general question of democratization through force, instead allowing the reader to intepret as s/he will. Packer understands that there is no single story of the Iraq War, and that even by talking to as many people from as many different places as possible, he can’t establish the definitive meaning of the conflict. The people he speaks with, even in Iraq, stand on different sides on the question of the wisdom of the conflict, with some dying, some jubilant, and others just trying to get by. I think that the account does get at the basic unseriousness of those who planned the conflict, including both civilian and military personnel who didn’t have the faintest idea of what they were doing or of the very serious consequences of their failures. For example, one group in the Pentagon thought that they key to pacifying Iraq would be the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy to Baghdad…

A good general narrative of the staging of the war and its aftermath runs through the book, which makes it very effective as a text of the occupation. I suspect that Assassin’s Gate will have a limited shelf-life, as it provides no earthshattering insights, and does not offer a detailed history of any specific part of the campaign. On the other hand, Packer may be able to return to the subject in a couple of years, finding new viewpoints or revisiting old ones. In any case, Assassin’s Gate is well worth a read today.

[ 0 ] August 18, 2006 |


Friday Cat Blogging… Nelson and Starbuck

Capital Ships

[ 0 ] August 18, 2006 |

Damn.

That’s Abraham Lincoln, Kitty Hawk, Ronald Reagan, 3 Ticonderogas, and what looks like 8 Arleigh Burkes, constituting nearly a quarter of the combat capacity of the USN. It’s the first USN exercise ever to include PLAN observers.

Query

[ 0 ] August 18, 2006 |

You’re a game and a half behind the division leader in August. This is the last direct meeting you’ll have with the aforementioned leader. It’s a tie game. You have recently traded much of the team for additional relief pitching.

Is putting Ryan Franklin on the mound, for what may be the most critical inning of the season, something that you would do?

Juan Gone

[ 0 ] August 16, 2006 |

I’m not even sure I can say why, but something about this felt very mean-spirited:

Second-strangest thing about the Tigers: Six years ago, they offered Juan Gonzalez a $150 million contract that would have destroyed them for the rest of the decade if he wasn’t dumb enough to turn it down. It’s almost like the entire franchise had a near-death experience. Anyway, they took advantage of that second life and now they’re headed for 100 wins. … Meanwhile, Juan Gone is playing in the Independent League along with my buddy JackO’s pal from home, and after JackO drove to Jersey to catch one of his friend’s games, they stopped at a Subway for dinner afterwards, and who walked in but Juan Gonzalez? That’s right, the two-time MVP Juan proceeded to sit down at a table and eat a Subway sandwich by himself. These are the things that happen when you turn down a $150 million contract. I feel like you need to know these things.

I know that Juan Gone was an overrated player, but he did hit 434 home runs and manage a career .561 slugging percentage. While the analysis of the contract is correct (the Tigers made a ridiculous offer, and Gonzalez an equally absurd decision in turning it down), it’s not terribly unlikely that Juan Gone would have found himself in the independent league, eating at Subway alone in any case. He made $87 million during his career, so my guess is that he’s there because of convenience, not because of poverty.

A Puzzle: More Attacks, Fewer Kills

[ 0 ] August 16, 2006 |

The NYT reports that attacks on US forces are nearing on all time high in Iraq. Yet, casualty rates for US troops seem to have stabilized. Why is this? I’m not sure, but here are some guesses:

  • Defensive measures, including armor and anti-IED tactics, continue to improve. The NYT report indicated that they were counting “exploded” bombs, but I don’t know if that includes IEDs that were exploded at a safe distance by US forces. This explanation is plausible, given what we know about the lack of preparation, both tactically and materially, by US forces in 2003 and 2004.
  • The US hasn’t launched any major operations against insurgents in 2006. Large operations in 2004 and 2005 led to very high death rates in particular months. Of course, we may see such an operation in the next month or so in Baghdad. Then again, maybe not; the Bush administration may try to wait things out until the elections are over, as they more or less did in 2004.
  • As Max Boot and others have noted, US troops may have reduced their participation in the most dangerous operations, including foot patrols and excursions into insurgent held territories. We would expect that attacks under such conditions would have the highest chance of success, given a favorable local environment. Of course, such operations are absolutely critical to success in a counter-insurgency campaign.

All of this, of course, is speculation, and doesn’t even begin to consider what appear to be escalating civilian death rates. What’s certain is that conditions in Iraq are bad and are getting worse, and there doesn’t seem to be much indication that any progress is being made.

Book Review: The Persian Puzzle

[ 0 ] August 16, 2006 |

This is the fifth of an eight part review series of the Patterson Summer Reading List.

1. Colossus, Niall Ferguson

2. Illicit, Moises Naim
3. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
4. The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman
5. The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack

The Persian Puzzle is the latest from Kenneth Pollack. In the run up to the Iraq War, Pollack’s The Threatening Storm lent cover to a lot of liberal hawks who wanted to believe that invading Iraq was a good idea. The Persian Puzzle, while hardly characterizing Iran in friendly terms, doesn’t go so far as to advocate an attack, and indeed calls for US restraint in the face of the Iranian nuclear program. So, what does Pollack do well, and what does he do poorly?

I don’t know enough about Persian history to vouch for the accuracy of Pollack’s account, but it read well and didn’t set off any obvious alarms. Pollack doesn’t read or speak Persian, but he seems to have a fair grasp of the English language sources. The narrative works well in part because Pollack is careful to note the elements of the history that matter for the relevant current policy debates. I understand that this is poor historiography, but it’s helpful in the context of what he’s trying to do, and helps frame the rest of his discussion.

Pollack gives a characteristically excellent military history of the Iran-Iraq War, perhaps the best I’ve read. This is unsurprising given Pollack’s earlier great work in Arabs at War. The war was characterized by ineptitude on both sides; the initial Iraqi offensive collapsed because of poor training, meagre officer initiative, and exceptionally bad command and control. Iranian offensives based on human wave attacks proved surprisingly successful, although against a competent foe they undoubtedly would have ended in bloody massacre. Pollack details the significance of the military assistance that the US lent both sides, including the weapons sold to Tehran by the Reagan administration. Eventually the Iraqis adopted the French/Egyptian model of carefully scripted attacks, repulsed the final Iranian offensives, and destroyed the bulk of Iranian military capacity. The war was a dreadful disaster for both sides; apparently in 1982 the Iranians turned down a promised $70 billion payment from the Gulf oil monarchies to end the conflict. Iran also rejected an Iraqi offer to help coordinate an attack against Israel in return for peace. One of the brighter points of his history of the war is the discussion of the Iran-Contra affair. Pollack details the manner in which the deal went down, as well as the very real effects of the weapons that the United States sold to Iran. It is still remarkable to me that the wingnutty among us can revere not only the President who decided to sell weapons to a terrorist state in hopes of freeing a dozen or so hostages, but all of the various lieutenants who enabled and executed that decision.

The most unfortunate element of Pollack’s discussion of US-Iranian relations is his concentration on reputation. Pollack wants to tell a very simple story that emphasizes the importance of maintaining a reputation for strength in the face of Iranian aggression. Unfortunately, he can’t manage to make the facts fit the argument. The problem is that Iranian behavior does not change in response to US demonstration of “resolve” or lack thereof. The Iranians do seem sensitive to changes in US capabilities, as the display of American fighting prowess in the Gulf War caused a great deal of concern in Tehran. At other times, however, displays of resolve have no notable effect on Tehran’s behavior. The same could be said of Iran’s relations with Iraq; in spite of multiple demonstrations of Iraqi resolve, the Iranians only gave up the war when the Iraqis demonstrated clearly superior capabilities. Pollack’s discussion of the Khobar Towers attack is simply absurd. That the attack was connected to Iran was beyond question. The United States, notably, failed to attack Iran in return. Iran’s response to this was…. to moderate its foreign and domestic policy. Pollack points out that this was not simply a response to the election of Khatami; the clerical hierarchy and the Revolutionary Guard also favored moderation. Obviously, this makes no sense whatsoever in the context of a discussion of reputation. Demonstrations of weak resolve should result in further aggression, not moderation. Pollack assumes that reputation matters, but is never able to connect any change in Iranian policy to a corresponding change in US stance. As they used to tell us in graduate school, when there’s no correlation, it’s hard to prove causation.

I think that Pollack essentially gets the policy right; Iranian nukes aren’t good, but they aren’t bad enough to justify the costs associated with military action. Steps short of military action ought to be taken to increase the price of Iran’s nuclear program, and thus hopefully to reduce its size and general attractiveness. His book is a useful primer on the history of Iran and the course of US-Iranian relations, although the reader should be prepared to treat elements of his account with a grain of salt.

The Grain of Truthiness

[ 0 ] August 16, 2006 |

Make sure to read Lance’s proper and appropriate excoriation of Elspeth Reeve’s defense of Ann Coulter. I really wonder if there’s something in the water at the New Republic that makes people think “Hmm. I’m kind of liberal, but I really can’t stand liberals. What can I do to demonstrate that?” Lapdog Kaus has, of course, leapt on Reeve’s defense as proving that “there’s a grain of truth” in what Ann Coulter says. Let’s see if we can find the grains of truth in the following:

“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”

“It’s no surprise they want Saddam Hussein back. He made the Democrats seem moderate by comparison.”

“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.”

“I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s death so much.”

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