Saturday, April 17, 2010

Say what you will about the many tyrannical regimes around the globe, for my money they are few despots that can match the owners of professional sports teams.  Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban, Daniel Snyder, and, of course, George Steinbrenner are about as vicious as they come.  And the some of the divas among the ranks of professional athletes have reached a demagogue status to rival Joe McCarthy, at least in their own minds.  Just ask Terrell Owens, Kobe Bryant, or Peyton Manning.

You may think this is just a lame attempt to run a scary picture of Jerry Jones and to blog about sports instead of important serious things.  And you're right!  But you know what?  I've satisfied my own (minimal) criteria, and that's enough for me.  So without further ado, here are my picks for the NBA Playoffs (and the obligatory creepy Jerry Jones photo).

Eastern Conference:

Cavs over Bulls in 5
- Bulls can take a game while LeBron shakes off the rust and they reintegrate Shaq into the offense, but that's it.

Hawks over Bucks in 5
- Losing Bogut means no chance for the Bucks.

Celtics over Heat in 5
- DWade is terrifying (as a Celtics fan), but his complete lack of a supporting cast dooms the Heat.

*Upset Special* Bobcats over Magic in 6
- Slightly crazy, I know, but I just can't buy into this Magic team.  Howard is still limited offensively, and I have a hard time seeing any of their other guys creating for themselves offensively.  Larry Brown has a crew of long, athletic defenders who can disrupt the Magic 3-point attack, and I think they can put together enough offense to steal the series.

Western Conference:

Lakers over Thunder in 7
- The Lakers are reeling and Durant can score on anyone anytime he wants, but they're still too young and green (not Jeff Green) and small in the middle to take down the champs.

Mavs over Spurs in 7
- This one will be a war.  It all comes down to Manu, and I don't think he can take 4 games for the Spurs.

Suns over Blazers in 6
- No Brandon Roy means no second round for Portland.

Nuggets over Jazz in 6
- I know the Jazz are playing well and the Nuggets are struggled, but who is going to guard Carmelo?  And never bet against Billups in the postseason.

Check back next week to laugh at me when my predication turn out to be terribly wrong.

It has not been a good week for essays, at least not for the ones I've read.  If you've read anything that I've missed, please let me know in the Comments section.

Here is a recycled, but timely, C.J. Chivers piece about the Korengal Valley, and you can read Jeff's post for an update on what's changed since last August.

C.J. Chivers, Esquire - The Long Walk: Afghanistan (and Its Future) as You've Never Seen It

Eight years. Nearly eight years had passed since B-52 strikes and a Northern Alliance offensive had chased the Taliban from power in Kabul and President Bush had spoken triumphantly of American ideals and American power. Nearly four years had passed since the SEALs had died on this mountain, a battle far enough back to have been memorialized in a book. And still the Americans were here, sweeping the same ground, headed toward the wreckage ahead, somewhere up there, in the dark.
Each man silently peered down his dim green cone, breathing deeply, picking his next footstep, walking on.

And in honor of my favorite season, baseball season, getting fully underway, here are a few diamond stories - a new one, a classic, and (The Weekly Reading goes multimedia!) a must-see movie.

Marty Dobrow, - Mixing memory with desire: Lary Hasenfus, a 58-year-old knuckleballer, finds new life on the collegiate mound
 So it was no surprise that when he was sent out to the bullpen, the dugout came alive with chatter: "Now's the time, Larry. Go get 'em, seven. Here we go, Larry, Larry Kid."
Looking like some sepia-toned image from Ken Burns' movie studio, Larry wipes the sweat from his handlebar mustache (a follicular time machine: gray in the middle, reddening as it curls out to the sides). He then swings both of his arms behind him, kicks his right leg in the air and delivers the ball right into the catcher's target.
Larry is raring to go at age 58.

Richard Ben Cramer, Esquire - What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?
He's always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He's been up for hours, he's ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: "WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?" Ted's voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it's only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It's your hearing he's worried about.

Sugar, Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Sugar tells the story of a young Dominican baseball player who earns himself a spot in the minor leagues and his struggle to adapt to life in America.  It's shot in the style of a documentary, and, while fictional, is inspired by the true stories of hundreds of Latin youngsters who have come to the U.S. seeking major league glory.  It's as much about the immigrant experience and coming-of-age as it is about baseball, so don't shy away if you aren't a fan.  Just see it - trust me.


Friday, April 16, 2010

This week, US Forces withdrew from Afghanistan's Korengal Valley -- known more commonly to those who served there as "the valley of death". It is a story that has landed relatively quietly in the US media, and deserves much more attention.

US troops arrived in the Korengal in 2005 -- they moved in, claiming the high ground of the tiny, isolated valley, and prepared for an impossible mission. The strategy was for those soldiers to draw the fire and attention from Taliban and foreign fighters who sought to enter into Afghanistan from the Pakistani theater via the .8km-wide valley.

The goal was not to secure the valley, nor to block the valley's entrance. The goal was to tie up insurgents in a battle away from more populated regions of Afghanistan.

The goal was put quite frankly by the Washington Post:

"The troops were, in essence, bullet magnets. "
Since 2005, over 40 US soldiers have been killed, hundreds wounded. The soldiers were met by daily small arms fire, ambushes, IED attacks, and mortar fire from the surrounding hills. Some of the fire came from Taliban, more from local insurgencies who sought to oppose the central government's expanded control over the remote valley -- filled with 5,000 fiercely independent Korengalis -- who speak their own language, and follow many of their own customs.

This year, a new command structure in Afghanistan has come to the conclusion that ISAF operations in Korengal run higher risks than rewards. The conclusion was that Capt. Mark Moretti's troops in the valley had not stumbled not into a hive of Taliban insurgency, but an internecine blood feud between Korengalis, who sought, above all, to be left to their own devices.

(more after the jump)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Renewed warnings about the US Federal Government's budget deficit hit the front page of the New York Times today.

The Federal Reserve chairman said Wednesday that the government must begin to make “difficult choices” to address its gaping deficits and warned that “postponing them will only make them more difficult.”
Bernanke continued:
"Although sizable deficits are unavoidable in the near term, maintaining the confidence of the public and financial markets requires that policy makers move decisively to set the federal budget on a trajectory toward sustainable fiscal balance."
The United States needs to spend less money. Period. But that is the easy part. The hard part comes when specific cuts must be made.

(I should add that this post is written under the assumption that no further tax increases are politically feasible/possible/desirable in the short- or medium-term)

The American reaction to potentially cutting Social Security benefits is representative of the difficulty of cutting domestic social benefits - Americans react with visceral disdain to any suggestion that their Social Security benefits might be cut and politicians are wary of running on benefit-cutting platforms. Social Security is rightly called the "third rail of American politics."

If social benefits can't feasibly be cut, where to next? Foreign aid is a favorite target of budget-cutters (71% of Americans would cut it), but it accounts for less than 1% of the total federal budget.

One idea, until recently thought to be tantamount to political suicide, is to make cuts in the US Defense Budget, which represents the largest single piece of the discretionary budget. Why is it not political suicide now? Matthew Yglesias has some interesting analysis that examines the political feasibility of defense cuts.

(Graph courtesy of Anne Lowrey of the Washington Independent - In blue, the number of people who say something should be cut with. In red, the percent of the budget that these programs account for)

Yglesias calls defense spending "the least-unpopular cut" of "the major budget items," but correctly identifies that "it’s very politically difficult for a president to do anything that provokes the ire of the defense establishment whether or not it polls well in the abstract."

By: Anonymous

For over eight years, the U.S. has been embattled in a war on terror. Since then, almost 800 detainees have passed through the gates at Guantánamo Bay. On his third day in office, President Obama signed an Executive Order that established a responsible date for closing the detention facilities at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Three months ago that date passed; but the urgency of closing the facility remains.

Closing Guantánamo would immediately increase the United States’ long-term prospects for safety and security. Our enemies could no longer exploit the camp as a recruiting tool to inspire hatred and violence against our troops and citizens. Some doubt the link between the symbolism of U.S. prisons like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and terrorism, however, reports from troops in the field suggest otherwise. Major Matthew Alexander, whose team of interrogators obtained the information necessary to locate and capture the head of al Qaeda-in-Iraq, believes that “the reason why foreign fighters joined al-Qa’ida in Iraq was overwhelmingly because of abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and not Islamic ideology.”

Furthermore, closing Guantánamo will enhance our credibility with our allies throughout the developed world.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Well this TIME piece is just about the most depressing thing I've read all week.

How can southern Sudan become an independent nation when it possesses so little of what defines one? Many aid workers and development experts in Juba doubt it can. They have coined a new term to describe its unique status: pre-failed state.
I'm no expert on development, but it seems overly teleological to call it a "pre-failed" state.  Clearly a newly independent South Sudan would be impoverished, but it's impoverished now as a part of Sudan!  Moreover, poverty does not inevitably cause state collapse.  Good governance, coupled with international aid, could presumably keep the nation afloat until a real economy develops.

I'm not saying it will be easy, but isn't it too pessimistic to assume a new state would inherently fail?

Monday, April 12, 2010

An unheard of story out of Helmand this weekend. On April 10, Afghani police and intelligence agents stormed a hospital run by the Italian NGO Emergency in Lashkar Gah -- the capital of Helmand. The charges are startling. IRIN News reports that three Italians and six Afghans from the aid organization of "terrorism and assassination". The charges come from the top -- Provincial Governor Golab Mangal.

Mangal accused the head of Emergency in Afghanistan, Marco Garatti, of taking a US$500,000 bribe from Taliban insurgents and involvement in a plot to kill him during a visit to the hospital. He also accused Garatti of the “deliberate killings” of patients and wounded people in the hospital at the behest of the Taliban.
To be specific: the charges are that Garatti was accepting Taliban money for organizing a suicide bombing. Mangal held his press conference with props -- two suicide vests, guns, and ammunition he claims were seized inside of the Emergency hospital.

Mangal is alleging that an Italian NGO was in the pocket of the Pakistani Taliban, targetedly killing their patients, and accepting money in a cash for suicide deal. The charges are shocking, surprising even the Afghan Ministry of Public Health.
(more after the jump)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I finally read James Traub's excellent piece on emerging drug trade routes, "Africa's Drug Problem."  Traub highlights the case of Guinea-Bissau, a small West African state that has become a regional hub for narcotics smuggled from South America into Europe.  The sheer volume being transported is staggering:

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 40 tons of cocaine, with a street value of $1.8 billion, crossed West Africa on the way to Europe in 2006. The number has now dropped significantly, but many law-enforcement officials view this as a pause before further adaptation. 
Three key issues emerge from this piece.

This first is the maladaptive role governments play in this trade.  In Guinea-Bissau, the state, depending on your level of cynicism, is either impotent to stop drug traffickers or is entirely complicit and enmeshed in illegal activities.  Traub presents strong, although anecdotal, evidence of the latter:
Then, Djata says: “We got a call from the prime minister’s office saying that we must yield up the drugs to the civil authorities. They said the drugs would not be secure in police headquarters, and they must be taken to the public treasury.” A squad of heavily armed Interior Ministry police surrounded the building. Djata said his boss replied, “We will bring the drugs ourselves, and then we will burn them.” Government officials refused. Djata and his men relented, and the drugs were taken to the public treasury. And soon, of course, they disappeared — as did the Colombians. 
In either case, the mismanagement of resources by governments has either created additional incentive for public officials to illegal enrich themselves or has deprived the state of the necessary capabilities to intercept well-financed drug traffickers.  The heart of the matter is the prevalence, and acceptance, of corruption.

Secondly, the insatiable global demand for illegal narcotics provides a powerful financial incentive to criminal gangs. 

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